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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2011

On the Eve of the 2012 campaign

Reading comment sections on political blogs teaches you two important lessons. First, the reality of social systems is so astonishingly complex that it is virtually impossible for a single mind to comprehend either its logical ramifications or its moral implications. Second, a human mind is dangerously susceptible to the allure of simplifying interpretations. The winner of a debate is often not the guy who has the most consistent and rational message, but the one who has the most simplistic and emotional one.

Much like in photography, the lighting and the point of view is crucial. You can easily present a shabby penny in a way that is more appealing than a diamond drowned in a poorly chosen environment. And with people it is even easier. With a little bit of imagination you can pitch any given politician as a humanitarian savior or a despicable villain.

Here in the US, the 2012 presidential primary season barely started, but the media spin machine is already going into overdrive. Sure, some of the political thinkers and amateurs will ponder the issues, some will debate the solutions, some may even weigh the strength of respective candidates, but when they come to the polls, their votes will be steamrolled over by the shapeless majority who have only a vague idea what the issues are, but who will vote for whomever the media paints with the most expensive air brush. And that is the scariest part.

Over the years, the art of insinuation has been perfected to the level way beyond the defense capabilities of an average voter. And I am not talking about the number of babies ostentatiously kissed on a stump. It is much more subtle than that - emphasizing wrong positions against wrong demographics, polishing old skeletons, selectively choosing statements without any context, displaying unflattering photos - all that can and will create a preconceived bias.

Media are the Achilles heel of fair and impartial elections. Not only do they have owners and these owners have their own political agendas, but they also consume colossal amounts of money making it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run. It is a big game and we are but little pawns in it - constantly puzzling over whom they marginalized today and whom they may adulate tomorrow.

So as the media circus shifts into higher gear, I can only sigh with William Shakespeare: Frailty - thy name is Democracy.

Organic Church

I still remember my grandma's preserved blueberries. All natural from start to finish. Every summer we'd make raids in the nearby woods and picked several liters of wild blueberries with an archaic implement called the "comb". My grandmother would then convert her kitchen into a laboratory of folklore alchemy and start turning the forest produce into jars of well canned summer memories using some esoteric stewing procedures that would probably earn her a seat on the Gingerbread House Board of Trustees. Served in long winter nights as a side dish, they always managed to evoke the sweet smell of sunlit clearings in the middle of a hot July afternoon.

But we live in fast times and people do not have time to store nutrients in such laborious and old fashioned ways. Modern food production is more like a goose-stepping parade of tin soldiers of technology. Human hand barely touches the ingredients. The line between agriculture and chemistry has become dangerously blurred. Whole industries have sprung up to bless us with genetically modified plants, multistory feeding troughs and harvesting machinery of daunting mechanics. All in the name of insatiable and growing demand.

Interestingly, religion fell victim to a similar trend. Taking care of the soul became a big business. Megachurches with high tech stereo surround systems abound. No footwork needed. Well polished Bentleys carry preachers in brazen jackets and shiny shades on their humble pilgrimage. Televangelists everywhere are raising their spiritual crops with colorful screenfuls of digital fertilizers. Even the Internet chimes in, although I find the idea of God lobbing quarters into the coin baskets of the information superhighway a bit hard to swallow.

This Christmas, I visited my aunt who lives in Janske Lazne, a small Czech town nestled in picturesque mountains near the border with Poland. In the evening we went to a mass in a simple protestant church. The interior was plain without any bombastic trappings and the same description fit the preacher's sermon. He would often struggle for words to describe our increasingly indescribable world. No prepared talking points, no fashionable sound bites, no hidden agenda. Just his plain opinions and holiday reflections served on a wooden platter, as he tried to provide his parishioners with some kind of ethical compass.

I wish all churches would return to that model. Leave the mass production to corporate world and dispense spirituality from the scratch. With less glitz, but more personal touch. Because simple heartfelt word is better for our soul than any well enunciated platitude swept off the liquid crystal teleprompter. Just like a jar of my grandma's blueberries will always be better for our body than anything Monsanto could ever come up with.

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Prisoner's Oily Dilemma

Prisoner's Dilemma is a classical example in Game Theory (originally proposed by by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950s) which demonstrates why people might sometimes choose not to cooperate although doing so appears to be in their best interest.

The game involves two prisoners, lets call them Joe and Jim, accused of some poorly evidenced crime. They are being interrogated separately and the police - in order to elicit admission of guilt - presents them with a simple choice: either deny all charges (cooperate with each other) or confess to the crime (effectively betraying your partner). The resulting 4 possibilities come with the following sentences:

Joe confesses, Jim denies: Joe walks free, Jim gets 1 year
Joe denies, Jim confesses: Joe gets 1 year, Jim walks free
they both deny: they both get 1 month
they both confess: they both get 5 months

Now ponder what you would do. Would you choose your own selfish interest for the off chance that your partner in crime has character and won't rat you out in which case you walk free and your buddy does some hard time, or would you cooperate with your fellow culprit, hoping he does the same and you both end up with a mild sentence? Note that although mutual cooperation is clearly the way to go (in terms of the overall sentence sum), many a low life would go for the riskier option even though it may not pan out.

Now let's switch focus to the whole planet.

Due to the explosive growth, humanity found itself in a similar position at the onset of this millennium. We have a dwindling supply of oil and it's up to us how we'll manage it. It is a known fact that wars waste more resources than peaceful activity. Military vehicles are not known for their great gas mileage. That puts us Earthlings in a long term dilemma similar to the one described above. Either we will cooperate with each other, put our disagreements on hold and try to make the best use of whichever oil we still have left. Or we will go into wars, wasting the crude reserves at much higher speed, hoping against hope that such wars will leave us with a slightly larger portion than would be our fair share. But - much like with prisoners above - if we ALL choose this destructive strategy, we will all end up with a much harsher sentence at the end. When the wars are done and over, we may realize that all that oil we fought over so hard is simply gone. Mindlessly wasted in the carburetors of our beloved tank divisions.

It will be interesting to see which way the humanity chooses. Judging by the intensity of sabre rattling in the Middle East, it will be a close call.

May wisdom prevail.

Somneroy's Mesh

When I was in college, the Prague jazz scene was struggling in an intellectual twilight of the decaying communist regime. Hidebound apparatchiks had never much enthusiasm for free flowing art forms. But there was one band whose performance was shining through any tarpaulin that the overzealous censors tried to pull over it. It was called Naima and besides the standard trio of piano, bass and drums it featured rather unusual combination of electric violin and saxophone. The sound of this quintet was out of this world - riveting, engaging and sparkling as a pint of vintage Cabernet rolling playfully in a Riedel Vinum glass. Their adventures in the land of harmony filled you with that kind of inflammatory beauty that made you wanna get up and tear the benches off their bolts and hurl them into the Universe together with some choice primordial screams.

But alas, all that syncopation took place in the mid 80s - there was no YouTube and no recordable CDs then - and the communist recording industry wasn't exactly gaga over projects that made little effort to celebrate heroic achievements of Lenin and Stalin, not to mention the fact that the whole genre of jazz was still viewed as a poster child for the Western decadence. Hence no recordings of these amazing journeys have ever been made available to public. If any existed, they disappeared in the tumult of the modern world without a trace. Often when I search the racks in the CD store, I wonder how many hidden gems have been hiding undiscovered and unreleased in the vaults of private collections and archives.

And that's how it is with everything on this planet. Not every great idea makes it to the market and, conversely, commercial success is not a guarantee of quality. If you want to find something unique and refreshing, you may have to open your eyes and search in places well off the beaten path.

I went to Florida recently with a friend of mine and took tons of photos there. Tampa, Naples, Miami, the Everglades, the Keys - the whole enchilada. But my very favorite photograph of the whole trip did not showcase one of these magnets of tourism industry bathing in the splendor of Florida sunshine. It was taken at night and with nothing more attractive in it than the back a garden variety hotel in Miami Beach.

Yet - possibly because it does not have any recognizable dominant to distract you with - it exudes an unusual air of subdued tension, the natural anarchy of a tree portrayed against a stern backdrop of concrete functionalism. What a strange combination thought I - but at the end of the day it turned out surprisingly well - kind of like mixing the sound of saxophone and the electric violin on that poorly lit stage in totalitarian Czechoslovakia.

When I was looking at that photograph at home a couple of weeks later, it occurred to me that "Somneroy's Mesh" would be a great name for it. Mind you, I do not know any Somneroy, living or dead, Google does not know what somneroy is (which actually is a remarkable feat), yet - as I was looking at the picture - those words spontaneously popped in my mind without any indication what they might mean or where they came from. No memory was associated with them. But I bet they came from the same rogue lobe which is responsible for placing violins and saxophones on the stage next to each other. That lobe which doesn't care whether things make sense.

And you know what - sometimes it works out better that way.

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Doge of Venice

Everyone who ever helped setting up a voting system for the class president selection knows that aggregating people's opinions - which is what election really is - is an ungrateful and deeply ambiguous undertaking. We all have our little internal preferences and opinions, but compounding them into a meaningful ranking that would reflect everyone's opinion is where the trouble lurks. Do we just take the person who is favored by most, or do we select the person who generates the least amount of opposition. Should it be winner-takes-all or should we give some points also to people on lower rungs of individual preferences? And how about people who exclaim: I like candidate A, except if he can't win I'd prefer C over B, unless A endorses B or B stops wearing those horrible purple shirts with yellow flowers. Aggregate that!

A little research on "voting systems" reveals a hopelessly muddled jungle swelling in the midst of human efforts to govern themselves - a timeless arena for mud slinging, palace intrigue and dirty politics of all kind. Yep, voting is a mess. A royal mess to be exact. There is in fact a precise mathematical proposition (google "Arrow's Theorem") which may give your foggy doubts about the whole system an elegant quantitative skeleton.

The other day, while poking my wikipedia stick at this sagging underbelly of democracy, I unearthed an archaic system that almost made me laugh. It pertained to a very peculiar and time consuming procedure that was devised for the election of the Doge of Venice in early Middle Ages (apparently the elders in this part of the Mediterranean did not have access to cable or an Xbox in those days). Without going into gory details of the mindbogglingly elaborate routine, one thing worth mentioning is that the multiphase operation contained a great element of randomness. It was essentially a sequence of filters which alternated selecting candidates and casting lots - all designed with the aim to level the playing field and prevent the largest families from having an undue influence.

Not that I would want to implement such monstrosity in our modern and highly efficient times - after all reducing the primary season in the US to merely ... well... some 18 months is an achievement well worth preserving - but it did make me think that maybe introducing a bit of randomness into the way we choose our representatives would not be such a bad idea.

Let's consider a hypothetical voting system in which the candidates are chosen randomly with a dice which is biased according to the election results - which means that those who command higher support of the electorate will be given better odds. As a simple example let me use an urn with colored balls as a random number generator. So let us suppose that the election results are in and they read as follows (in parenthesis I'll show the resulting bias):

1. candidate A - 60% (gets 6 red balls in the urn)
2. candidate B - 30% (gets 3 green balls in the urn)
3. candidate C - 10% (gets 1 yellow balls in the urn)

Now under normal circumstances the candidate A would get the position, period. But not with our brave new randomized system. We will just record the preferences and place the colored balls in the urn accordingly. The candidate A will still be the most favored to win the election - after all, six balls out of ten are his - but the other candidates now have a fighting chance as well. Ready? OK, now let an innocent child draw a ball from the urn and voila - your new senator is born.

We hear a number of complaints about too much money in politics these days. Many are quipping that elections have been effectively replaced by auctions. The underlying statistics of this new system would make it harder for corporations to buy candidates since they would be reluctant to waste money on people who might not make the random stage. It would also allow voters to make more honest decisions. Many people are afraid to vote for their true choice because they worry they would have wasted their vote on someone who does not have a chance against the perceived front runner. Introducing randomness would thus support non mainstream candidates who could still win in the random stage.

(one technical detail: we don't really want people who got say only 10 votes to have even a minuscule chance of taking the big prize - so to prevent obvious risks lets say that there would be a 5% minimum to qualify for the urn stage)

If you are still puzzled why we would let randomness enter the fragile world of our democracy, think about how many times we discovered things randomly - penicillin, chocolate chip cookies, teflon, brandy, microwave come to mind - even America herself was stumbled upon when Columbus searched for a different route to India. Or think about how many times you took a random turn in an unknown city and discovered a great photo op that wasn't mentioned in any of the glossy brochures. How many times did you slip into a great pool of fun just following a friend's hunch? The point is that our world has become so complex that it isn't easy even for experts to figure out what the correct form of governance should be. Do we loosen our immigration policy or do we tighten it? Should the central bank increase the interest rates or slash them? Who can really fathom all the implications of potential tax hikes? The labyrinth of causes and effects had long ago grown beyond the comprehension limits of a single mind. So maybe letting a little randomness in would make us realize something new. Something that would make our society happier in the long run.

Oh, and one more advantage. If a Doge of Venice ever discovers the time machine, he will feel right at home in our beautiful 21st century.

Florida Keys

If Florida were a lizard, the Keys would be its master tongue probing the warm waters of the surrounding oceans for juicy morsels. Strung on the US Highway 1 like Caribbean pearls, the Keys are an elongated archipelago gently arcing in the southeasterly direction and reaching the farthest point some 100 miles away from its entrance. Despite the common origin, each individual island maintains a unique character so that the whole necklace offers a little bead of fun for everyone.

At the very beginning, you'll find a colorful coral reef accompanied by a series of fishermen's havens and heavens. And as you drive inwards you discover other hidden gems - secluded marina here, a thick coppice of mangrove trees there, a herd of dwarf deer, maybe a quaint backyard cluttered with tropical bric-a-brac or a family restaurant where you can have a fish a thousand ways and the obligatory Key Lime Pie to boot. You won't find many beaches here, but the ones you do find are so shallow that you can wade amazingly far from the shore and still be only knee deep in the water. And if you make it all the way to Key West, you can roam its narrow colonial streets with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway or just hang out at the Mallory Square and enjoy the streaming sunset.

But my favorite place in the Keys is the Old Bahia Honda bridge. A structure no longer used, but elevated high enough to give you a different perspective. As we were climbing an old wooded trail to the remainder of the bridge, I was puzzling why these islands were called keys in the first place. Only when we entered a small concrete platform, did the answer materialized in front of my eyes. These were the Keys to Paradise.

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Larry, Moe and Curly

Every so often I run across a public pronouncement which makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland, fleetingly pondering if I am still on the right side of the Looking Glass. Today, Yahoo Finance served one such piece of wisdom straight from Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summers.

"The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending, and more spending."

Hmmmm.

That is like saying - while your plumbing problems were caused by too much hair, too much trash and too much gunk in the piping, the solution is to dump more trash, more gunk and more hair into your sink.

Or it is like saying - while your camel is slowing because it has too much stuff on its back, the way to make him go faster is to tie more junk to its hump. I would actually love to see a dramatization of such scene starring a retired camel in the role of the ailing economy and the three stooges as Wall Street Maestros - three buffoons running in circles around the poor animal, frantically pushing their belongings on top of its cargo area, and punching each other in the process.

But the moral of this parable is really simple - people can't drink themselves sober. It does not work. The mindset which caused a problem is not usually conducive to solving it. Summers' argument sounds like a desperate plea for a continuation of the same old Ponzi scheme which nearly crashed the system to begin with. And even if we could find the new suckers, eventually it will run aground again, except this time with a much larger bang.

Sure, there is one group of people who would profit greatly from the never ending expansion of credit, from driving more and more people into deeper and deeper debt. That would be bankers. They surely would love to pile more debts on top of the old ones - as Larry Summers is undoubtedly well aware. But his point sounds about as sincere as McDonald's spokesman hypothetically claiming: "The central irony of our obesity problem is that it can only be resolved with more hamburgers, more French fries and much fatter mayonnaise".

Albert Einstein allegedly authored the famous quote about insanity - which is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Too bad Larry Summers never heard of it.

Bearfall

Dreams are strange creatures. Clouds passing across the sleepy sky like unwanted children of our imagination. Elusive wisps balancing on the chancy edge of sleep. Phantom memories being vigorously erased by the consciousness the moment we wake up.

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to wake up in a dream, and be aware that I am in a dream. What a bonanza that would be. No longer bound by laws of physics. No longer bound by social conventions. Perfectly free to ransack toy-stores or spend a whole afternoon on a secret mission in a candy store. Free to toss watermelons from balconies, spit into unattended beer pitchers and engage in other arrest worthy activities.

But not only am I never aware of it when I am in a dream, somehow my dreams lack the vividness that would even make me want to be in them in the first place. You know the flying elephants kind of dreams. The phantasmagorical fantasies famous artists and other celebrities sometimes elude to when they name their sources. I don't know. Maybe I am not smoking the right stuff before I go to bed.

I usually dream of missed airplanes, of events in the office, of prospective dates, of meeting an old classmate. Nothing out of the ordinary. Up until yesterday.

I woke up with a memory of a dream so strange that I had to write it down on a piece of paper on my bed table. The curse of dull dreams had finally been lifted. I do not remember all the details, but one image survived the onslaught of consciousness. I was standing at the edge of something that looked like a regular waterfall, except the river bed wasn't filled with water - instead the stream was brimming with scores of rolling bears. Yep, tons of brown grumbling furballs, tumbling on to the very edge, and then falling down into a dark and misty abyss whose depth was well beyond the resolution of the cerebral unit responsible for my dream processing.

A bearfall. Fancy that. A genuine bearfall. Finally, a dream I can proudly remember. A dream that was truly extravagant, if a bit overbearing. A dream I would actually love to be in and at the same time be aware of it.

Not necessarily as a bear though.

dd

Cardinals rise from the ashes...again

In most sports you recognize the key moments only in retrospect, only after the turbulent swirl of action disgorges them on the shores of victory. In baseball, however, such moments bloom right in front of your eyes and often come with an advance notice. You can trace their contrails in real time. They are displayed out in the open for all to see, like shards of a precious vase carefully dusted off at an archaeological site.

Time: October 27, 2011.
Place: The Busch Stadium in St Louis

The World Series between Cardinals and Texas Rangers, Game 6, bottom of the Ninth. Cardinals' stats look dismal - two outs, David Freese at bat with two strikes and the team down by two runs. You can almost hear the Champagne bottles popping in Texas. Temperature drops perceptibly. This is the opposing team's match point. This is the moment. Potentially the last pitch. The bat swings and a ball is popped high into the space. You can see it won't be a homer, but it will be a few seconds before it arrives back on Earth.

You can imagine a miniature Elf of Baseball, a mischievous old man with a flying cape, standing firmly on the ball as it cuts through the autumn air. His eyes are scanning the rows of forlorn fans who are standing motionlessly in the bleachers. His outstretched left hand is clutching a massive staff while his right hand probes the wild beard as if in a search for clues. If Nelson Cruz catches the ball - as most players routinely do - the game is over. If he doesn't a glimmer of hope will prevail. Seconds pour from the clock like Midwest honey. Slowly and with a dense accent. Finally the Elf puts away the inflight magazine, and starts preparation for the landing. But as Cruz readies his glove for the lethal catch, the ball swerves a bit at a weird angle and somehow manages to avoid the leathery embrace. As it skips down onto the green turf of the outfield, Pujols and Berkman run all the way home, equalizing the score.

Only people who know how fanatical this town can be about baseball can imagine the rapture. Wall of rumble raises from the stands. A moment ago the stadium was frozen with an tense mixture of hope and desperation. This was the Arctic permafrost layer of the Cardinals' fandom - hardened by the past failures, yet forever harboring the highly flammable seeds of new life. When the camera panned over you could see people peeking through knitted gloves. Now those same gloves are flying through space propelled by gusts of sheer joy. From nihilistic silence to ecstatic uproar in 0.2 seconds. Take that Ferrari.

But Texas did not fold either. The game goes into extra innings and Rangers manage to rebuild their two run lead. Another drama ensues. The Cards are down to the very last strike again. Was the screenplay for this Game ghostwritten by Stephen King? The jubilant chanting gags in everyone's throat. The cheering is out, an anxious stillness is back in vogue. What an emotional roller coaster. But in St Louis they learned to hope till the very last moment this season. And indeed, the game is equalized again and then some. In the eleventh inning David Freese lights the sky up again. And this time it's going all the way. Game seven - here we come. We have not seen one in the World Series since 2002.

The momentum such extraordinary game builds is simply too big to be overcome by conventional means. Needless to say the Cards won the last game. And quite deservedly. This was the team who kept coming from behind the whole season and they took this skill all the way to the top. In August, they were down 10 games with a month to play. They barely made the postseason and qualified only on the last day. Throughout the playoffs they had to overcome deficit after deficit and their fate often hang in the balance by a hair on Tony LaRussa's head. Yet any time they were down and almost out, they just bit the bullet, clenched the bat and went out to do their best. Against their opponents and against all odds.

We live in times when success is often tainted by an unhealthy dose of foul play and backroom machinations. Not only in sports, but in our public life as well. In such times a good Cinderella story becomes a precious source of inspiration. The Cardinals did not need to fudge their stats. They did not need to bribe their umpires. They just stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the ballpark.

Old Rag Time

When it comes to standing in a line, I rank myself a "weathered practitioner". Growing up in the Communist Bloc gave me plenty of experience with the subject. Due to the notoriously ineffective economic system, we'd stand in line for just about anything. Oranges, prime veal cutlets, vacations in Yugoslavia, new books, windshield wiper blades, you name it. But little did I know that one day in the future I'd be standing in line for hiking.

This September was extremely rainy in the DC area. It rained cats and dogs most of the time, and when it didn't it rained bunnies and pet boa constrictors instead. So when the first October weekend became a sunny Indian summer extravaganza, half of the DC poured out west to plant their limbs on anything that seemed even remotely green.

The Old Rag mountain in Shenandoah Park is one of the most popular hikes in this area. Not only it provides eyefuls of delightful scenic views but it also offers a bit of a technical challenge for the rest of the body. You don't just walk on a boring gravel road here. You have to squeeze through narrow crevices, you have to pull and push a lot, you have to clamber onto lone boulders, or hop across gaping clefts.

Before one such technical climb, the trail of tourists slowed down considerably to allow people ahead cope with the difficult terrain according to their abilities. But as the new people kept arriving, the pace slowed down to a trickle. A genuine traffic jam had formed. So there we were - hopelessly stuck and eventually waiting for about 20 minutes to get our hands on those pesky rocks and bootstrap ourselves up.

Doing time underneath the Old Rag summit felt like a preview of some dystopian fantasy. Perhaps that time when we'll be queuing for a breath of fresh air and some natural views is not far away. The ravenous gusto with which we exploit the natural resources of this planet certainly suggests so. We better start being grateful for whatever scenery is still left here and there.

Measured by the standards of the Pacific coast, the views would be considered a boring footnote in the Annals of the Mundane. But here in the East they were a nice treat - a piece of our own wilderness - well worth standing in a line for.

fwd

Central Banking 2.0

Europe is slowly choking on its debt.

In the ensuing political dance of thousand headless chickens, bouquets of poppycock are flying across the ball room in all possible directions. And some impossible too. A truly grand legacy to leave to our preposterity. Apparently, the European political and financial elites think that the best way to fix a leaking pail is to pour more water into it. And there are many leaks in the collective pail of the European incontinent: bleeding health care system, wasteful if not outright fraudulent management of public resources, unrealistic promises made to all segments of the society, poorly managed immigration policy, inept bureaucracy, etc. But you never hear politicians mulling over solutions that would actually mend these problems. You know - a little welding job here, a little putty fix there. All they want is to pile more and more debt on top of a stinking heap of the debt already on the books. In other words, keep throwing good money after the bad. You don't have to be a policy wonk to figure out that such cavalier attitude towards money rewards and encourages irresponsible behavior. Not only it never fixes the leakage, it may actually entice a couple of smart cookies to drill more holes into the pail.

While the contours of the eventual solution are still hidden somewhere in the morning mist hovering over Brussels' administrative district, you can bet that it will involve printing nice amounts of money somewhere in the dark soft underbelly of the world's banking system - all perpetrated under noble pretexts of saving the people of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Never mind that the people of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain probably won't see a single penny of any rescue package. They are not supposed to. They are supposed to join hands in the Holy Parsimony and let the proceeds of this financial bamboozlement - wherever they may come from - go straight to European banks, mostly German and French.

It is banks' job to lend "responsibly". It may be Greek to them, but extending oodles of credit to a nation of notorious tax evaders is not prudent, especially when the local public servants are wont to retire at the age 50. They might have just as well loaned that money to a bedraggled drunk waltzing into a Las Vegas casino at 3am. It was private investors who made such daffy decisions, but it will be central banks who will have to rescue these pecuniary nincompoops. Whether it is Maestros at the Fed, at the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan or the Swiss National Bank, the central bankers will roll up their sleeves and crank up those printing presses. Because that's what they do best. That's how they solve problems that their lesser non-central brethren have created. The fact that hard working taxpayers will have the value of their money decimated in the process is of little concern to them. Hey Benny - pour more water into that pail, will ya?

And the funniest thing is that when you ask them where they got the mandate for such shenanigans, you will learn that we, the people, gave it to them. Yep, they are just taking care of the business we entrusted them with. The business of managing our money. But don't expect any apologies. Only if you get lucky and find that one financier whose soul hasn't been foreclosed on by the devil yet you may elicit a sheepish "I feel your pain" look followed by the well rehearsed fatalistic sigh "but there is no other solution, pal, sorry".

Fancy that. No other solution. So they just whip up vats of dough out of the goodness of their hearts and fork it right over to the politicians, who selflessly sanctioned this process to begin with. Casual examination of financial flow charts will quickly reveal that this operation benefits Wall Street and K Street tremendously, while Main Street gets the short end of the stick. But the funniest part is that central banking of this kind is presented to us as some sort of natural physical process which is beyond our control - like precipitation of moisture or gravitational collapse of a burned out star. And that means that all we can do about it - and let me put it in precise economic terms - is diddly squat.

Well, in that case let me make a suggestion.

From now on, the central banks keep their money stock constant. They don't even think about printing a single dime without our consent. They don't take on their balance sheet any toxic manure from private enterprises either. And if they do need to increase the amount of money or credit in circulation - and at times of crisis such need may arise - they don't just dish the freshly minted smackeroonies out to the big boys to speculate with. They give them to us, the people, first and then let the banks compete for the prize. Yes - compete - that magical word which used to be the driving force of economic progress.

It's only fair, right? If they manage the money supply on behalf of us, the people, then any unbacked expansion of that supply should indeed benefit us, the people. Not just the narrow group of well connected banksters. It's not all that difficult. The Fed will just send their electronic monies to the Treasury and that in turn will cut every taxpayer a warm and fuzzy refund check. For instance during the last money puffing operation, a charade known as Quantitative Easing, Ben Bernanke conjured up roughly 600 billion brand new dollars. Now divide that into 300 million people and you get about $2,000 to every man, woman and child in this country. Imagine what good could have been done with that kind of scratch.

The people would decide whether to buy local stuff (stimulating economy), or whether to put the windfall in the bank (recapitalizing our malnourished financial institutions). But remember that banks are businesses - they should have a plan. No more cheap handouts straight into their coffers without any strings attached. If they want to get their hands on our capital, they better offer us (gulp!) decent interest rates. That is the kind of capitalism I could believe in.

How about that, Dr. Bernanke?

Up the Creek

Traveling along Iceland's Eastern fjords is a mystifying experience. All that warm moisture in the air brought straight from the Caribbean by the Gulf stream condenses when it hits the stark and cold peaks and enshrouds them in a robe of opulent clouds. As you drive along the coastal road, you can never really see what's going on in the high mountains towering above you. All you see is a white cotton candy canopy stretching as far ahead as the eye can see. No wonder that significant fraction of Icelanders believe in elves and fairies. Cover always stimulates imagination.

When we reached Faskrudsfjordur and the cloud cover didn't let up, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to see for myself. We left the car at a small rest area by the fjord and I climbed straight up into those smooth treeless Icelandic mountains. There wasn't any trail there so I just followed a tiny creek that was cutting its way across hardy tundra vegetation. I was quickly gaining elevation and soon disappeared in the low lying fog like a strayed sheep, treading as lightly as possible on the sturdy carpet of arctic moorlands cushioned with mossy upholstery and embroidered with vast networks of dwarfish berries. I was pretty sure no human being ever set foot there before. Probably no other mammal either. The nearest farm was too far. It felt as if every stalk of grass, every green leaf looked up at me wondering what strange creature was plodding across this desolate terrain.

But it was a worthy experience. Surreal, too.

I entered the Kingdom of Crackling Silence. Or maybe it was just my own blood rushing through the inner ear. A seductive whisper of instant solitude whose caustic concentration dissolved the lingering concept of humanity into an abstract notion that hung around me like Aurora Borealis. Here, high above the cold waters of the fjord one could easily abandon whatever form of existence one had in the civilized world. Just leave it in the locker, like a towel in the spa for subconsciousness.

Each step was a step on the moon. Bestirred only with echos of quietude.

This must have been the kind of place which Beethoven's spirit roamed when he was composing his late String Quartets. An abstract plane of the mind void of any connection to the space and time that we normally occupy. The lucid mountain air that forever greets those brave souls that have withstood the onslaught of the first 122 measures of Grosse Fuge. A fairy dance of sixteen strings.

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Aircraft Witchcraft

An airplane is like a magical tube.

You enter its cabin, you take your preassigned seat, you eat you meal, see a good movie, maybe listen to some music - and in a few hours - voila! - you are somewhere else. Different time zone, different culture, different weather, different brand of cereal, different currency. As if while you fidgeted in your seat a mighty wizard tapped the hull of the airplane with his wand.

A car does not quite provide the same level of shock and awe. When you drive around you see the world change continuously. East slowly morphs into West, mountains slowly dwindle into plains, warm climates slowly cool. Like when you drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff in Arizona. You start at the bottom of a desert valley populated with little more than forests of Saguaro cactuses. Then you take interstate 17 and in a few hours you climb onto a high mountain plateau covered with grass and even sparse groups of coniferous trees. But you never really notice any change. It's just that there is fewer and fewer cactuses and the patches of turf seem larger, greener and more frequent. And before you know it, you are in the middle of a prairie.

With airplanes it's different. The change is abrupt. One moment you enter this hollow metallic cylinder at the Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC and the next one you can't believe your eyes. You are in Reykjavik.

Abracadabra.

Frontier of Life

There are many things fascinating about Iceland. One which catches your eye no matter where on the island you are is certain stubbornness of life, its bullheaded determination to squeeze some juice out of virtually barren environment. While in the southern climes life wallows comfortably in the recliner of verdant valleys, in Iceland it is precariously poised on the razor thin ledge of uneasy existence.

Glacial outwash is a bleak stretch of land that looks like an industrial wasteland taken straight from apocalyptic movies. But give it a year or so and you will see an army of mosses marching across its inhospitable plain. No place is safe from the subversive invasion of green - lava flows, thermal fields, sheer rock faces, black sand beaches - wherever nutrient can be found, there they are. And where they can't, life subsists seemingly on pure hope. Like glacial mice - the small pebbles that the glacier rolls along as it descends into a valley. Slowly, year after year, they get turned from side to side eventually becoming sort of green eggs completely covered with moss and living purely off of the moving ice mass. No soil necessary.

But the ultimate outposts in the ancient battle between life and the elements are the Icelandic farms.

Trying to harness the forces of reproduction around the 66th parallel requires a healthy dose of determination, a good stable of horses and at least a thin layer of soil. Big or small, the farms put up a good fight for every acre of fertile land. Every mud patch that contains some organic matter, every couple of inches of dirt that drifted into the lava fields, every piece of tundra that the sheep won't turn down will count. They may not sustain more than a family or two, but in Iceland that is enough. As you drive around the island, you will see their small settlements ensconced in deep and wind torn valleys, perching on steep cliffs above the angry Arctic ocean or just underneath the mighty glaciers hanging onto a piece of land periodically flogged by devastating floods. Sometimes you drive around desolate mountain plateaus or charred volcanic ridges and you are thinking - no one could possibly build a farm here - and then you spot it. There it is. A silent monument to the endurance of man. A clenched fist thrust defiantly deep into the solar plexus of a frowning mountain.

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The Big Bank Theory

The prices of commodities have been through the roof and in the popular hunt for culpable culprits the speculators got into public crosshairs. You know those clean cut quantitative wizards who keep churning unimaginable quantities of imaginary contracts at their computer screens until the resulting bubbles burst in the face of the huffing and puffing economy. But the thing to know about financial bubbles is that you can't really blow them up with a stack of old baseball cards. You need cash. Lots of it. And that is where central banks of the world step in - in an attempt to whitewash the skid marks of runaway greed they have been hosing the whole financial world with oceans of liquidity for three years now.

However, serious actions have serious consequences. While our authorized money magicians can pull as much liquidity from their hats as they wish, they cannot enforce where it goes. That is for markets to sort out. Can you blame the traders that they direct the money that is being showered on them to where it promises the highest returns? I don't think you can. They are traders - that's what they do for a living. That's like giving kids a set of matches and then chastising them for setting the barn on fire. The central banks should be the adult in this game. Easy money is a drug. But instead of being a responsible pharmacist, our beloved central bankers turned into unscrupulous pushers.

Commodity speculation isn't the only problem of our financial system. There is much that is wasteful or outright fraudulent - excess of unproductive money in politics, rampant misuse of public funds, poorly understood risks, non existent ethics - you name it - but if you follow the money trail it always leads to that one big bank in the center of it all. In our case the Federal Reserve and its ability to create money at will. When water is in infinite supply why would we conserve it, right? Being able to create money out of thin air is like saying "hey guys go ahead and take your insane risks, we will print more if need be".

Gold used to impose certain discipline, but it's rigidity lead to stress that was tearing the financial system apart. That is where the notion of elastic currency came from. Not a bad idea per se, except we gave control over it to the wrong group - we have entrusted our hen house to the foxes. Look at the irony of it: we will meticulously vote for the least important dude on a school board in some godforsaken district in rural Alabama - yet we let a bunch of unelected and unsupervised financiers unilaterally determine the strength of our national currency. And remember that any tinkering with the money supply dilutes the purchasing power of the money already existing. Yep, that would be those green pieces of paper residing in your wallet. We all literally walk around with bankers' bony hands in our pockets. They control the actual value of our wealth, but they do not answer to us in any meaningful way.

This lack of oversight also prevents establishing efficient mechanisms that would deal with their incompetence or abuse. Reading past statements of Maestros Bernanke and Greenspan makes your hair stand on end sometimes. But there is nothing you can do about it. Granted - economy is a very complex system and everyone makes a bad call once in a while. But then why not link the crucial decisions to some market mechanisms, rather than subject them to whims of a small group of self-proclaimed experts. Especially when that group earned a pretty shady reputation over the centuries. Bankers have been abusing their powers since the Middle Ages. And central bankers are no exception - they will always take care of their own first, even if it's exactly the same geniuses who created the mess. After the recent infusions of public (taxpayers) money into the clogged veins of the global financial systems even the most naive must see that banks are not here to serve people, people are here to backstop the foolishness of their management. We gave them keys to the world and they drowned it in debt. Maybe we should finally reevaluate this awkward arrangement and give custody over this lovely little planet to a group that will treat it with more respect - like architects, entrepreneurs, engineers or tigers.

In 1913, the Big Bank of modern financial times happened. The Federal Reserve was created and the idea of elastic currency was implemented to the benefit of bankers all over the world. A century later, a thorough review of this institution is in order. Why do we fret over every penny in our personal, family, community, company, city or state budgets and then let central bankers throw billions of dollars around as if they were paper confetti? Why would we want to be forever chained to irresponsible and arrogant macho sociopaths at the helm of the too-big-to-fail monsters? Even in biblical times it was understood that throwing money changers out of the temple was a pretty healthy activity that should have been practiced every now and then. Preferably now. Our schools have raised scores of smart economists in these past few decades - just the list of Nobel prize winners would fill a whole page of a decent newspaper - and I am sure if they put their enlightened heads together, they could devise a new and fair financial system. One where we won't be helpless cogwheels in the thingamajig of global machinations. One where banks will concern themselves not only with checks, but also with balances.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

What we see of Mother Earth is but a peel of an apple. When we roam its surface, when we potter around in the garden, even when we dig foundations for our buildings we barely scratch its skin. But despite our limited range, we can't help pondering what lies beneath. Do the vast reaches of that tremendous unexplored volume harbor anything magnificent? Or perhaps sinister?

That's what Jules Verne must have been thinking when he sent a group of travelers into our planet's innards through the crater of an inactive volcano in Iceland. The protagonists of his famous novel enter a geological wonderland and waged many an adventure in the labyrinth of its arched caves filled with mystifying features and antediluvian monstrosities. No wonder that his book has resonated with every child's fantasy for more than a century. Once we figure out the concept of the inside - we just can't help wondering what lies just underneath our feet. We have always been drawn to the unknown and the sizable radius of Earth provides plenty of space to unknow.

This notorious piece of literature had such profound influence on former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman that he put it to music not once but twice, in both cases accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. First in 1974 under the original Verne's title, and second time in 1999 as the Return to the Center of the Earth. Both compositions are remarkable jewels that are a peculiar in at least two regards. First, they mix classical music with rock (no pun intended), both in terms of style and instrumentation. And second, unlike other musical action forms (opera, cantata, musical or operetta) his "concept albums" further the plot by a mixture of music and narration. While an actor reads passages of Verne's book, Wakeman's music conjures up vivid images that expand the plot into new dimensions, forming a symphony of subterranean acoustics filled with echos and reverberations.

Earlier this year I visited Luray caverns and my first impression was draped in the opening theme from Wakeman's first Journey. The unique charm of the stalactites and stalagmites reopened that page in my memory and rerendered it with fresh authenticity. What a spectacle! The absence of natural light wraps your mind in a cocoon of mystery. The dark cavernous ocean visually implemented by shadows and reflections capsizes your senses and literally invites strange sea creatures from its depths into your imagination.

It was also an extravagant hyperbole for many of our problems. No matter what your difficulty is, it usually pays to look underneath the cover and beyond the obvious, beyond what is visible on the surface. In a sense a successful solution always ends up being the Journey to the Center of the Earth. It's a strange world down there, but that's where the solutions lurk.

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My First Earthquake

One of the signs of a mature age is that the "firsts" start disappearing from your life. When you are young, you get a first almost on a weekly basis. Your first tooth, your first Oreo cookie, your first falling star, your first lizard, your first soccer game, your first scraped knee, your first skates, your first day at school, your first hangover. The fun seems endless. But as we chug along through the stream of life and our firsts get rarer and rarer, we better savor each and every one we get.

Today, around 1.51pm local time, the Washington, DC area was hit by an unlikely 5.8M earthquake with epicenter near Mineral, VA, about 100 miles south of where I live. Of course, Californians would scoff at such pathetic shiver, but for many of us here on the East Coast this was a big deal. Our first earthquake. Whether it was a direct message from God to the Capitol as some far right and far out media quipped, or just a geological outlier, it was an experience we will all remember.

I was sitting in my office, not suspecting anything out of the ordinary, when I felt a large disgruntled dinosaur rushing by on the street. Slightly puzzled by the attendant shudder, I stepped out into a hallway and saw a pale faced colleague who just hissed "get out" and without missing a beat continued on his way to the door. The scenery did not seem very catastrophic or anything, but a sense of urgency in his voice made me follow. In the stairwell, we found that others had the same idea. We poured out into the beautiful sunny day and started loitering in the parking lot, cursorily scanning the building walls for cracks. I walked around the corner to see if I could spot the dinosaur who caused this hullabaloo, but it must have gone to the post office or something. I returned to the group and awaited further signs of the pending apocalypse. None showed up. The sky wasn't particularly livid this afternoon, and the four horsemen probably took a day off, so we figured that the show was over and returned to work.

But we sure live in exciting times.

Last year we had a record breaking blizzard, this year a rare earthquake and next year, Mayan Gods permitting, we should have the end of the world on our plate.

Survival of the Oiliest

The game of politics is changing. As its objective shifts from implementing efficient governance to coddling unrealistic expectations, its playbook has been filling with cues from the field of snake oil marketry. After all, how else do you fulfill the competing and often contradictory promises made to different segments of the society? If everyone demands happily ever after for themselves and their family dog, you better start pulling some serious rabbits out of your political hat.

As I watched the great finale of the debt ceiling debate, a weird and disconcerting image emerged in my mind. It featured a huge and completely packed football stadium, two teams of players running chaotically around the field in red and blue jerseys, donkey and elephant mascots shimmying on the sidelines and, above all, literally, a huge scoreboard hanging over the bleachers and shining far into the night with the final score of the epic battle between Democrats and Republicans:

Mediocrity 1, Charisma 0

As I scan the news program and political talk shows, all I see is pandemic demagoguery. Regardless of the party affiliation, our politicians' main distinguishing feature appears to be drizzling apathy, often accompanied by foggy reasoning and torrential incompetence. Sure, their words may cruise glibly past their lips and around their cheesecakey smiles, but the glitzy rhetorical make up only paints a Potemkin wisdom on their faces. What rankles inside their minds is best left unexplored. Let's just say that these days the public appearances of our elected representatives make me wanna order an extra strength yoghurt blower. But let's look at the bright side - the entertainment industry got a brand new genre out of this debate: a stand up tragedy.

I do understand that politics requires plenty of consensus, so certain level of lubrication is necessary for moving positions around. But when the oiliness becomes the primary mechanism for ascending in the power structure, we are in deep trouble. The pull of this mechanism inevitably brings spineless and unctuous mold to the top, leaving little room for people with ideas, scruples, intellect, conscience and other outdated bric-a-brac. The brave new handshakers spawned by this process slither happily in their natural habitat of stuffy congressional backrooms. Having mastered little more than just the basic calculus of payoffs, the slick eels of the modern political stream found their own path into the corridors of power - rubbing elbows. With the magic of evolution, I expect that after additional 100,000 years of wheeling and dealing there will be a new nominal subspecies of homo sapiens distinguished by a vestigial brain and exceptionally large and swollen elbows.

Engineers know that an electric current always seeks the path of least resistance. When corporate interests want to make sure that the deals essential to their well being get done, they exploit a similar strategy. Rather than battling it out with strong leaders, it is easier for them to influence weak followers. Placing contemporary politics under undue financial pressures indeed promotes those that can act as a natural power conduit, as a passive transmission system merely aggregating and relaying the present forces. Networking skills are obviously paramount. In today's emptified and ideologically high strung politics it is not about how many people you can win over, but how many people you can avoid alienating. No wonder that we end up with gray, meek, nondescript and easily pliable acolytes. The big cats with retractable morals. The pawnish hearts in general's uniform.

One does not have to dig deep to unearth examples of such prototypes. Listening to our congressional honchos reveals plenty of study material. Whether you focus on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on the Republican side, or Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on the Democratic one - you'll hear the same sterile, abstract and structureless arguments and the usual barrage of mealy-mouthed rambling. No trace of a coherent thought, no concern for the consequences, and personal pizzazz of a pizza delivery service. Is this the best each party has to offer? What on Earth do they stand for? Why do they keep spinning contrived ideological dogmas where fifth grade logic would do? But don't expect many answers. When they do respond to specific questions, they just recite canned sound bites sometimes in blatant disregard for the crux of the matter. Yes, our overpaid baby kissers can memorize a lot. But we are not paying them for memorization. That's what pupils do in elementary school. We are paying them for thinking about the country's future and for finding the optimal path to it.

But the correct path likes to straddle. Sometimes it veers right and sometimes it veers left. Unfortunately, our career partisans observing the battlefield from their castles of insecurity with a pair of cheap binoculars won't see the other side of the coin no matter how many times you flip it. Analyzing the statements crawling out of their orifices reveals that this myopia is squarely spread across the political spectrum. The fantasy land soothsaying that characterizes the political analysis these days is rigorously bipartisan. Republicans keep dreaming about cutting taxes without saying how to pay for all the proposed wars and corporate bailouts. Sure, we do need some of those expenses, but the money necessary to fund the government operations does not grow on trees. On the other side, Democrats in their spendthrift zeal try to propose more and more ways to squander public money although the failed experiment of the Soviet Union clearly showed that when it comes to effective allocation of resources, government is not much better than a patch of barnacles. In other words, a small cadre of bureaucrats is not likely to outsmart millions of businessmen engaging in the daily operations of the free market. With such record, none of the two major parties can really claim the moral high ground or monopoly on truth.

Here is the real conundrum. In sports, arts, sciences or engineering we reward top performance, ingenuity, resourcefulness and courage. Why on Earth did we set up a political environment in which slick manners and intellectual crudeness take you to the top? Don't we need some creative minds in politics as well. You know - that special brand that can put two and two together and then drive from town to town explaining what must be done. That will stand up to short sighted special interests, even bang the fist on the table if necessary. We have to find the types that will shape the debate rather than be shaped by it. And pronto. The status quo does not seem to be working. We are trying to breed dynamic leaders, yet what comes out of the electoral hatchery every cycle is specimen after specimen of our very own Snake Oiligarchy.

That leaves us feeling like helpless cogs in the vast lobby machine, like Lenin's useful idiots. We could wear our shoe soles thin going to the voting booth, but as long as we have the same sad choice between prehistoric dinosaurs in red jerseys and two faced troglodytes in blue jerseys nothing will really change. We don't need any more petrified thinking or primitive slogans, all we need is some common sense and honest folks, preferably with real world experience, sequestered from the corrupting allure of big money. Oh, and we also need a couple of visionaries who will be able to peer beyond the four years horizon of their term and clearly point out the direction in which the country should be going. And currently that direction is neither left, not right. It is forward.

Serendipity ZOO

My neighborhood is not exactly a wildlife refuge. I live in the middle of a well developed urban area whose animal personnel is permanently understaffed. If you wander onto the community playground, you won't see any ostriches sticking their heads in the sandbox, our pool isn't teeming with crayfish, there are no porcupines hiding in the sewage system and when I have to go to the leasing office, I do not have to push my way through a herd of Siberian tigers.

Whatever little exposure to the less evolved members of the zoological family I get is usually provided by a narrow strip of woods between my apartment complex and the public park where I play tennis. That strip is formed by a caravan of towering old trees glued together by an exuberant green mass that molds the whole formation into a vibrant monolithic mesa. It's almost as if its dense foliage dreamed up a wavy surface of a boisterous ocean of life pulsating high above its dappled interior shade. Whenever I walk by, I let my eyes feast on the nearly aristocratic air with which it holds together the dashing bravado of the overgrown underbrush and restless woodbine. Sometimes I spot a histrionic flourish of Mother Nature, sometimes a solidified swirl of a puffed up organic skirt. As an added bonus, the inner side of this wooded segment produces spectacular firefly shows on hot summer nights which turn its darkened leafy wall into a shimmering blanket of Christmas decorations.

To enter the public park, you have to walk a short path that squeezes through an opening in the overgrown coppice. It is one my favorite places around the 'hood. I call it the "green tunnel" because it connects two very different worlds. The gray concrete jungle of a corporate parking lot on one side, and on the other the green leisurely calm of several sport fields floating in the sea of grass. You make but a few steps and enter a completely different state of mind. One with a higher ceiling and a longer time scale. And the green tunnel is exactly where I made two close encounters with representatives of the animal kingdom recently.

First came when I was unsuspectingly jogging around the park, and nearly bumped into a squirrel that I hadn't notice. Apparently, it did not notice me either. All I remember is that suddenly a medium size furball catapulted vertically into the air, pulled a somersault, more or less successfully landed and scampered away in a strangely confused manner. Judging by the guilty gusto of its leaping effort, that little bugger must have been reading dirty magazines in there. I had no idea a squirrel could take off like a chopper.

Then a few weeks ago, I encountered another animal there - and this time it was a turtle, or a terrapin as a friend of mine told me. While I see squirrels pretty much on a daily basis I don't encounter turtles in wilderness very often. The sight of it was so unusual that at first I thought it was my turn to spring 3 feet into the air. But I stayed my legs. This shelled reptile was munching on what looked like a dried up locust omelette. The sluggishness with which it processed its late lunch betrayed expectations of a very comfortable life span. Consequently - as turtles are wont - the critter showed no inclinations to leave, much less jump up and scamper. I thought I'd take a photo of its deliberate insecticide, but the moment I reached into my pocket and started fumbling for the camera, the turtle stopped, looked at me as if reconsidering its previous strategic decisions and eventually loitered away. I guess it did not want to have its table manners plastered all over the newest issue of the Turtle Magazine.

Since that time whenever I pass through the green tunnel I wonder what other evolutionary laggards could possibly cross my path. But none crawled out yet and something is telling me that from here on none ever will. Such is life on this planet, the moment you start expecting things, the invisible spigot of serendipity shuts off.

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Long Dark Day in Oslo

Scores of sons and daughters fell victim to a senseless act of terrorism in Norway, the country known for its consistent neutrality, well funded social programs and tolerant citizenry. The seat of the Nobel Peace Price Committee became a shell-shocked witness to an unexpected lapse of humanity. Anders Behring Breivik, a self described anti-Muslim crusader detonated a truck bomb in the governmental quarter in Oslo and shortly afterwards went on a shooting rampage that killed almost hundred adolescents in a Youth Camp of the Norwegian Labor Party.

I am not a parent so I am not going to pretend that I can fathom the horrors of having to bury a child. It is fundamentally wrong and beyond the pale of reason. A premeditated carnage of these proportions perpetrated by an individual from within the community should always be a cause for an especially deep reflection on its basic principles and common attitudes. Governing a human society is a complex process in which no question should be exempt from hard scrutiny and no answer should be taken for granted. One of the thorniest problems that this tragedy brought to the foreground is that of mass immigration and its attendant evils. Can they be placated by the lofty ideals of religious tolerance and multicultural coexistence?

In a world that is quickly turning into a global village clarifying the rules of social engagement should be on the front burner. After all, the freedom of one ends where the freedom of another begins. On this chaotic planet of ours, an adult discussion of acceptable boundaries is way overdue, whether they pertain to morality, ideology or religion. Crazy people cannot be stopped, but sometimes their acts could be made less likely to occur if their concerns were taken out of a taboo drawer and displayed in the open. Interactions between individuals, groups of people or even whole nations can be very intricate and understanding their dynamics and implications would go a long way towards preventing unnecessary bloodshed.

Imagine two neighbors, the Joneses and the Smiths. They can make friendly visits, they can borrow daily necessities, they can gossip across the fence, they can even laugh at their differences before returning back to their castles. They don't need to share any common values or opinions to get along just fine. As long as they have separate homes their relationships could be nearly idyllic. But imagine a tornado smashes one of the homes and one family asks to move in with the other. That's a game changer. Small things which were irrelevant just a week ago become suddenly points of hot contention. From now on sacrifices and compromises will have to be made.

Culture is hard to define and its demarcation lines are hazy. House rules, personal manners, cherished traditions, unwritten mores, eating habits, religious feelings all fall within its jurisdiction. In some cultures you have to take off your shoes, in some you don't. In some houses you can't leave dishes on the coffee table, in some you can. In some families you can howl in the bathroom, in some you can't. Across sufficient distances incompatible cultures can coexist without much ado, in close quarters, however, the differences have to be reconciled, truces must be negotiated, house rules need to be synchronized. When you live under one roof, even small and seemingly unimportant details will matter. It is crucial that all members of the household are in agreement on what constitutes politeness and civility, because if they don't some crazy uncle may take matters into his own hands and start shooting the guests because he just cannot stand the crumbs left on his beloved sofa every day.

Relationships between nations are similar. As long as we live within our own borders, variations are but a spice of life whose only casualty maybe an occasionally raised eyebrow or an awkward vacation moment. Troubles arise when large groups of people start moving around and settling in foreign lands, whether in pursuit of better economic opportunity or in response to unbearable political oppression. This is where digressions from the norm become widely magnified and a conscious effort has to be made to iron out the wrinkles and turn diversity into harmony - which is neither easy nor spontaneous. The arriving guests need to be observant of the old house rules, while the host nations should give newcomers enough time and space to adjust. That of course is easier said than done. Ideally, different segments of the society would engage in a dialogue to delineate the assimilation process.

Unfortunately, in the practical world this dialogue is mostly formulaic and shallow. The voices most easily heard belong to the extreme ends of the spectrum: the fascist-like xenophobic paranoia barks on the one side and the lethargic Soviet style pseudo tolerance crows on the other. Every issue has two sides, two opposing narratives, but the proponents of extreme views are rarely the best arbiters of the deeply grounded and very often subtle confrontations. In other words, a fuddy-duddy who panics at the sight of a person with a different shirt color won't resolve these sensitive matters any better than a slob who disinterestedly yawns that anything goes.

I think it is time for the mainstream folks to start pondering some hard questions. How do we make the interacting cultures enrich each other without destroying their characteristic idiosyncrasies? How do we prevent our global village from being gradually reduced to the lowest common denominator of a sterile and politically correct crudeness? How do we preserve the cherished values of our ancestors without being hostile towards those who are oblivious of them and yet come in good faith? If we can reason all of this out, the voices on the fringe will have less opportunity to hijack the debate into dark woods of barbarism.

Dragons of Imagination

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time whatifing.

What if giraffes grew two necks.
What if the world ran out of popcorn?
What if janitors became smarter than teachers?
What if we had carrots for noses?
What if the sky were brown?

Over the time I realized that the potential of this planet for silly deviations is rather limited, so I stopped thinkering with hypothetical scenarios and devoted the rest of my life to study of mathematics instead. But that last question got somehow stuck in my mind and eventually lead me to one of the most fascinating aspects of human cognition - that of perception.

Every day our senses hurl countless gobs and dollops of input into our minds to form an incredibly complex mosaic of observations. And while its most succulent morsels are being slowly chewed on by diffident dragons of imagination, a few renegade neurons in the rest of the brain may wonder if other people have the same experience. If the same external input generates the same perceptional output. Say you stand next to a group of art lovers in a gallery admiring van Gogh's "Starry Night". Do they really see the same swirl of colors as you do? Or do they see slightly different hues? You must have heard the stories of five eye witnesses who for the love of God cannot agree on details of the same crime. Or how a man and a woman may have drastically different recollections of a recent tiff. So when we all look up to the sky, do we really see the same color?

Sure, we can measure the physical wavelength of the light and if it is roughly 450 nanometers, we can ascertain that it is indeed the color commonly known as blue. But do other people perceive that color the same way we do? Do their dragons of imagination taste the same flavor when they chow on it? Or more technically, do those rays of light measuring 450 nanometers between the wave crests give them the same internal sensation? Maybe someone sees that same light from the sky the way I see say brown. Note that they will still call that color blue, because that is what we agreed to call that kind of light. It's just that when they see it, their subjective impression of that color, the tone that they individually perceive, corresponds to what I feel when I see brown. It is possible. And let me say unequivocally, if I saw a brown sky, I'd be depressed all day long.

Ancient Greeks noticed that people have different temperaments, which they ascribed to different fluids or humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm). But I am thinking that maybe somethings else is at work here. Maybe it's them dragons. What if people have different dispositions, because they see sky in different colors. For instance, the sanguine personality type may see the sky as blue, the choleric as red, the melancholic as brown and phlegmatic as yellow. And so they go on with their daily lives driven not by some arcane fluids in their system but by the elemental underlying mood which depends on the color of the sky as it appears to them.

Hey - does that count as a valid psychological theory?

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Three Elephants in the Situation Room

The unemployment situation is not getting any better. Two years after the recession officially ended, the job creation has stalled and there is little hope that it will pick up any time soon. While the economists point their learned fingers at each other's theories, the vertebrates of the political circus inside the beltway focus on what they do best: running around in circles like a claque of clueless clowns, facing the crisis with protracted smiles and unwavering sense of bewilderment. "There won't be any real jobs without the housing recovery" declaims one half of the choir, while the other one intones: "there won't be any housing recovery without jobs".

Unfortunately most of our elected ephemera use the heat of the current debate to warm up their own political soup. Private agendas are being huckstered for short term gain. No issue is far fetched enough not to be hitched to the glimmering bandwagon of job creation. But instead of rationally addressing the problem, our beloved public servants hide behind platitudes and vapid tautologies, parrot the phrase 'job creation' ad nauseam and beg the central bank to print still more money, hoping that a miracle will mysteriously transpire. Of course, the less they understand the problem the more they bang their gelatinous fists against the table. Shockingly, to no avail. Yet despite of all the verbal and theatrical fireworks, three root causes of the present crisis are conspicuously missing from their ruminations.

1. Global wage arbitrage. We cannot place Asian workers willing to work for a slave wage in the same market place with Western workers who expect safety standards and a basic health care coverage. Something has to give. Globalization has certainly lined up pockets of the top economic elites, whose only innovation consisted of sending the manufacturing to cheaper labor markets, but it did very little to improve the life of the working stiff. Exploiting foreign work force at the expense of your own is subpar. We are no longer in Dark Ages. None of the obvious solutions will be popular or painless, but this question needs to be addressed. We will either protect our work force or throw it out to wolves. Globalization and its profit distribution have to become a part of a new paradigm, Adam Smith 2.0 so to speak.

2. Income inequality. Sorry supply side gurus, but we need a vibrant middle class to generate consumption. The income distribution is way too lopsided at the moment. The ultra rich people are cool and cultured and all, but they can't consume enough basic goods and they park too many of their funds in passive assets and overseas markets where they get much better return on investment. No matter how many times John Boehner beseeches us to give the financially obese folks even larger share of the common pie, jobs won't be created unless there is an organic demand for goods. The trite song about trickle down economics needs to be retired. If the wealth gap continues to widen at the pace of the past few decades, we'll soon end up being the world's largest banana republic, and those - as is widely known - have much better track record generating bananas than generating jobs.

3. Education reform. We have to produce and export more to offset our consumption. By now it must be clear to everyone that we can't globally compete in the area of low skilled jobs. Our best chance rests in retraining the population for technologically advanced manufacturing; new materials, new technologies, renewable energy - you get the picture. To wake it up from its slumber we need more designers, machinists, technicians, scientists, engineers and less lawyers, politicians and financiers. The public schools are in disarray. The basic pay of teachers in math and hard sciences is pitiful. We cannot waste potentially brilliant minds just because their parents cannot afford private schools.

Global wage arbitrage, income inequality, and education reform. Would it be too much to ask for a politician to stand up and coherently address those three crucial points? For once, forget the posturing and positioning and pandering and prevaricating and politicking and just acknowledge the real problems and maybe suggest what we could do about them. This is not the first time this nation has been in a bind. And it won't be a first time it pulls itself out of it - if only it can find a Churchillian character on the Capitol Hill who won't be afraid to add a pinch of blood, toil, tears and sweat into our collective soup. Adding more and more water won't do - the pot is already overflowing.

I guess for politicians having to walk the fine line between well being of their constituents and financial interests of their deep pocketed sponsors presents a confusing dilemma. Perhaps, the first thing we need to do is vote them out of the office in the next election. Something is telling me that a little first hand experience with unemployment would make them see the whole job situation rather clearly.

Tiger's Root

There is a little tiger inside me. It must have been a really bad tiger in its previous life, because for a tiger to be reincarnated as a mathematician - that must be some kind of ultimate humiliation. Maybe it was pushing less affluent tigers into subprime lairs, or maybe it ate one Indian villager too many. Who knows. But now it dwells inside me. Most of the time it sleeps soundly behind my spleen, but the moment I take off my shoes it wakes up. It twitches its ears, growls in disbelief, sniffs around a bit and starts pacing up and down in expectation. I can feel it. Whenever I go barefoot, an invisible spark of feline instincts shoots through my spine. Echos of long forgotten animal spirits start reverberating in my skull. I have to touch my cheeks to make sure I haven't grown whiskers.

The first time I noticed it was in High School. We were on a field trip and playing volleyball on a grass court in front of some old gym. I was never particularly fond of this sport, but this time I took off my shoes and whoa - what a difference it made! First thing I noticed that my natural leapiness had increased at least threefold. I was jumping around the net like a kangaroo on a sugar diet. My memories of that game are so vivid that I still remember the shape of the court, the scaly gray wall behind it or the juicy tone of its green surface lit by a street lamp. I became an animal hopping and bouncing and hitting the ball from all possible angles, including from above.

Being barefoot confers certain freedoms. It is liberating. Take off your shoes and walk across a lawn if you don't believe me. It's like getting an extra sense rendered through our soles. It brings certain metaphysical grounding to our being. As if we have reconnected to this Earth through a root system and gained some of its energy straight from the soil. Much like trees and plants and grasses and everything else that grows from it.

rr

Deficits for Dummies

When you view economy through the prism of common sense, it is really not all that intimidating. I give you something, and you give me back something of equal value. Pretty simple, isn't it?

Now let's take a look at the national deficit. When government distributes its dollars, borrowed or otherwise, it is not just handing out pieces of paper of some theoretical phantom currency. Those little greenbacks represent value and people who put them in their wallets, be they army officers, federal employees or Medicare recipients, may convert that value into useful things. And I am not talking about monetary abstractions trumpeted up in the hallowed hallways of the Federal Reserve Bank. They buy apples and oranges, car mufflers, Alaska cruises, even ping pong tables. Now where does the value to buy all these things come from? Well, if you think about it, it can really come from only three sources.

First, it can come directly from taxpayers. People who worked hard all year long give away some of the value of their labor in the form of taxes. This is the most honest form of producing the value, because it is completely transparent and burdens different segments of the society according to some predetermined scheme. Second, it can come from the similarly hard work of our children whose taxes in the future will have a component that will pay for the debt our generation accrued. And third, the central bank can simply print a little extra money, which in turn dilutes the value of the existing currency, so in this case the value comes from those who put some of their value away for the rainy day. In short, from the savers, from people who lived within their means.

That third way of producing the value is a bit tricky, but you can think of it this way. Imagine you have a gallon of cranberry juice. You pour a glass of water into it (that's the extra "money" that the central bank prints out of thin air) and mix it with the juice. The juice is now a bit less pure, but there is more of it. You have just "produced" a glass of juice, which you can extract from the bowl, and most people who will drink the rest of it won't probably know the difference. As long as you don't overdo it.

Now let's make it even simpler: if we are running deficits - i.e. if we have to borrow because we are spending more than we collect in taxes - the value of the goods and services that these deficits offer comes from exactly two sources - the children and the responsible people. How does that qualify as a reasonable economic policy is beyond me. OK, so we enslave our children and become totally irresponsible - we all buy 3 SUVs and a house we cannot afford. And then what? We sell Yellowstone to the Chinese?

The problem is that the Mighty Warriors of the financial sector don't like things simple or transparent. They don't want you to ponder how things balance out or who actually pays for what. They don't want you to wonder where is the value of their obscene bonuses coming from. Complexity is a perfect smoke screen for turning the global banking system into a bloodthirsty parasite, which must be the reason why the financial sectorians are so well trained in all sorts of smokes and mirrors: opaque derivatives, statistical models, arcane financial statements, quantitative easings, and in general, any mathematical gimmick that can be helpful in muddying the waters. Their machinations have always been best conducted in a murky twilight of the rational limbo, so they gradually turned the field of economy into a chaotic spaghetti bowl that no humans (including the Wall Street depredators themselves) can possibly disentangle. Only in a world completely divorced from common sense can they push more and more debt to unsuspecting suckers. Their long term business plan seems clear: increase the lending exponentially to generate growth that would pay for the interest already due. In the theory, there is a name for that kind of economic model. It is called "Ponzi scheme".

If people were running their finances the way governments run theirs, our courts would be flooded with bankruptcies. But if you try to point out the dangers of living above one's means to the global wizards of Oz, they'll roll their eyes, put on a smooth avuncular tone #37 and inform you politely that personal and national finances are very different animals and cannot be easily compared. And sure enough - they are, and they can't. But guess what - a cow and a hamster are also very different animals that cannot be easily compared. Yet when you toss them out of the window from the 34th floor of the Empire State building, they'll both end up on the pavement in a very dead state. So yes, national finances can utilize a few tricks that individuals can't, they may redistribute the value within the larger society for instance, but at the end of the day they cannot escape the laws of economy any more than arbitrary animals can escape the laws of gravity.

The economy really is simple. In small quantities debt is like grease. It lubricates the cogwheels of production. But if you base your whole economy on binge borrowing, you may wake up in a bathroom one day with a serious hangover. Like Greece.

Under the Lollipops

The soccer stadium in my hometown, Hradec Kralove, is called "Under the Lollipops" for the characteristic shape of its lights. I haven't been there in 25 years. Either the team was floundering in the Czech second league, or my schedule left me stranded elsewhere in the world. Last year the team finally made it back into the first league, so during my regular summer trip back home, I took a trolleybus #2 and visited the old stadium in the Malsovice district. It hasn't changed much. The lollipops were still there, and with them most of the infrastructure built in the heyday of communism. When I sat down at the spot I used to take in my high school years, an eerie sensation swept over me. I felt strings that haven't been played for a while sounding out from deep under the hood.

Every musician will tell you that bass line is critical for the harmony. No matter what your solo guitarist may think, if the bass player starts riffing in F, there is no point fiddling with any other key. In a sense, our psychology is like that, too. We may have various predilections, experiences, fears and ambitions, but at the end of the day what determines our personalities are our own bass strings - the rafters of our inner harmony - the oldest memories reaching deep into the past, often partially obscured by the horizon of childhood.

I used to come here with my grandfather from whom I got my soccer genes. We would sit in these stands and watch our little provincial team struggle against the big sides from Prague. They haven't always prevailed, but they were our boys nonetheless and we were their loyal fans. Forever connected in some fundamental way that psychologists love to write thick tomes about.

My hiatus from this stadium was so long that one of the old team's best strikers had a grown son on the field. A quarter century is a quarter century. But every now and then it is important to return to the places from our far past and tune those all important bass strings in our soul. Or, more precisely, let the memories do the job. And so as I sat on the familiar cheap plastic benches and watched my favorite team eke out a 1-0 victory, somewhere deep in my mind the giant lollipops were working their magic like prods of a tuning fork.

hh

Gustav Mahler

One hundred years ago, on May 18, 1911 the world lost one of its greatest musical visionaries, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

In his day, Mahler was primarily known as an ambitious and unorthodox conductor, a reputation he acquired largely as the director of the Vienna Court Opera. Composing was but a passionate hobby of his, mostly restricted to summer vacations and not generating much public acclaim. But as the 20th century progressed, it became apparent that Mahler's music captured certain aspect of the modern society that people became increasingly attuned to, certain apprehension that no other composer could match with similar vividness and urgency. His nine symphonies masterfully articulated the existential anxiety, partially precipitated by the diminished role of religion in the intellectual circles, that began to enshroud the newly emancipated humankind.

The heart of Mahler's view can best be illustrated by analogy. For children, parents are a sort of deity. Everything that they experience, everything that happens to them seems to come as a will of the parental "Gods". Their whole world revolves around them. But as it becomes clear that both mother and father are just ordinary people, acting within the context of a larger society and subject to all limitations and weaknesses of the human flesh, kids have to cope with the new reality and not only redefine their relationship to the parents, but also discover their true selves. It is this fundamental shift of focus that is one of the primary agents for rebellious teenage years.

Mahler understood that at the onset of the modern era, with the quickened pace of industrial revolution and unstoppable progress of sciences, humanity was about to undergo similarly painful process of self-discovery and redefining its relationship with its gods/parents. The old belief framework needed new anchors; a new light had to be shed on the place of religion in our lives. We were collectively going through a severe bout of puberty. The only difference was that in lieu of binge drinking or growing long hair we were probing the outer limits of free thinking and instead of throwing mindless drug abusing all-night parties we were about to wage two devastating world wars. But in the process of growing up, we needed to acknowledge some very troubling questions pertaining to our own being. Is it possible to find hope from within? Where do we draw the borders between the ever expanding field of knowledge and the traditional beliefs? How are we supposed to cope with our mortality? Are we intrinsically good?

In addressing these questions, Mahler's work reached deep into our innermost core. Down there in the wine cellar of our psyche, half obscured by thick cobwebs and emptied bottles lies a rusty hatchway into his musical world: the illusory dreamland dabbed with clouds of haze rolling drowsily by, an evanescent pageant of life restoring moisture sweeping the deserted battlefields, and if you train your sight on an occasional opening in their flanks, you can spot a covey of homeless angels wading across an infinite flour beach, their white wings tightly tied with ropes of suffering, and also - a bit further in the distance - millions of faceless trombonists lining the long way out, all wearing dark brown habits and blowing their polished instruments under old gnarly trees planted by the fugitive God. Down there in the secret chambers of our soul, in narrow passageways that you rarely dare to enter on a stormy night, Mahler's music is widely spoken.

Technical note: if you never listened to him, I'd recommend symphonies 1, 4, 5 and 6 to start with. They are relatively easy to digest and present some of his most inspired melodies. Then I would take on the Eighth whose vastly expanded orchestra and multiple choirs earned it a fitting nickname "the Symphony of Millions". Finally, I would delve into the realm of metaphysics - the Ninth, the Adagio from the Tenth and "Das Lied von der Erde". If they don't scare you away, and they might, symphonies 2, 3 and 7 would provide a welcome refuge from unduly deep thoughts.

Mahler's symphonies picked up where Beethoven's last string quartets left off, although - technically speaking - the lives of the two composers were separated by several decades. But the evidence of fingerprints cannot be denied. While occupying the opposite ends of the 19th century, their intellectual personas had nearly touched. Michelangelo's famous painting "The creation of Adam" always springs to my mind when I think of them. In fact, if there ever is the Church of Music, Beethoven should be its God, the supreme and unquestionable authority, while Mahler would make for an excellent Christ, a more erring and Earthly incarnation of the same spirit.

The difference between the two is almost palpable. From the very beginning, Beethoven's tone is resolute and dominant, as befits the undisputed ruler of the Inner Kingdom. The battle cries of Eroica, the revolutionary ethos of Appassionata, the sovereign brilliance of Emperor Concerto all testify to his tremendous talents and uncompromising attitudes. But some of his best works from the last period of his life go beyond human genius. They bear marks of higher inspiration. Like the stone tablets that Moses brought back from Mount Sinai, they have a revelatory character. Whether you listen to Grosse Fugue, Ode to Joy or the Finale from Gloria, you are filled with a sense of awe - standing alone in front of an altar in a grandiose cathedral. The sheer momentum of their sound masses could easily move tectonic plates.

While basking in the same radiance of divine inspiration, Mahler's music is much more tentative and full of contradictions. Especially following the Eighth Symphony, whose massive proportions would make you think of a grandiose coming-of-age party in which a young adult expresses gratitude to his parents. A Thanksgiving to Gods if you will. After this musical feast, the landscape changes dramatically. Late Mahler steps into the world of uneasy and reverberating solitude. Much like Christ on his last journey to Golgotha, he stumbles under the weight of his increasing doubts. That moment when Jesus cries out with a loud voice: "Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachtani" is pure Mahler.

One day, I would like to see a film adaptation of the gospel according to St. Mark filled with Mahler's music. There is no shortage of deeply spiritual passages in his work, so the director would have plenty to choose from. For the emotionally stark path to the crucifixion, for instance, the first movement of the Ninth Symphony literally suggests itself - the gushing shadows of uncertainty, the shreds of the future hanging from poorly lit gallows, the anxious slow beating tympani in the background and the heavy cross of existence pressing on one's shoulder. Now if only we could get a kindred spirit behind the camera.

Vegas, Baby!

One of the Eastern metaphysical schools claims that life is but an illusion. If you subscribe to that kind of philosophy, then Las Vegas should be on top of your destination list.

Built at the dawn of the twentieth century in a dry basin of the Southern Nevada desert, Vegas is a masterpiece of illusion. A Disney World for adults with just the right amount of attendant vices thrown in. If you think of yourself as a caravan plodding through the desert of uneventful office life, then Las Vegas is your green oasis, where the elves of life perform their rejuvenating dance.

Las Vegas is both unicorny and glittery. It is the world's capital of kitsch hands down. Where else do you find oversize rabbit statues next to pink waterfalls of crystal drapes? Where else can you experience the miniature highlights of Paris, Venice and New York within three blocks of easy walking. And where else can you strut down the street dressed like a Renegade Harlequin without raising a single eyebrow? No matter what your preference for leisure is, Las Vegas has it on tap - a splashy show, a well manicured retreat, a bustling promenade, a brand name boutique, a non-stop bar, a glitzy vestibule, an endless maze of slot machines, an exotic restaurant, a neon symphony, a discreet card table, or all of the above.

Let's face it - we all need a little spice in the mundane soup of our every day life. A bubble bath of illusion to wash away the grime of banality. And when we wake up the next morning, who knows where we'll be - perhaps half way between the gilded walls of Mandalay Bay and the stately towers of Camelot, pleasantly entombed deep inside the Great Pyramid. Ready for our next life, just like the pharaohs of the ancient past.

hh

Chemistry is more important than knowledge

An old poster of Albert Einstein with his famous dictum "Imagination is more important than knowledge" has been hanging on the wall in my office for quite a few years now. One day, in my absence, a colleague of mine pasted a Post-It note over it. It spelled "chemistry" and was carefully placed over the word "imagination".

Originally I did not think much of this innocent caper, but gradually I realized that this seemingly arbitrary alteration of the meaning actually reflected a profound truth about the nature of human cooperation. Chemistry is indeed the crucial component of every dynamic team, its invisible bond. It is the grounds for common interpretation and its absence can have disastrous consequences.

Let me illustrate this with an example.

Suppose you have two boxes of junk that must be moved to a different room. You also have a helper, let's call him Joe, who speaks the same language as you do. In this case, a simple instruction is all you need for the operation to proceed smoothly: "Hey Joe, grab this box, I'll get the other one and let's move it to the other room". Upon digesting this brief plan, Joe obligingly performs his half of the task and the boxes are transported in no time. Pretty simple.

Now let us consider what happens when Joe receives his directions in a language that he does not understand. Imagine yourself in Joe's shoes and ponder what you would do if I told you say this: "Hele, Pepo, popadni tamhle tu bednu a jdeme!" You wouldn't be too thrilled, would you? You would probably stare at me not knowing what the heck I am talking about. I could repeat my training mini-session a bit more forcefully and with a slightly raised voice, but if I stuck with the language you don't speak the results would not be perceptibly better. At the end of the day, overwhelmed with frustration, I would probably move both boxes by myself, one at a time, which would of course consumed twice the time, not counting the botched negotiations with Joe.

The moral of the story is simple. For a team to be effective, its members have to speak the same mental language, their minds have to run the same operating system. Otherwise too much effort is lost in misleading and ineffectual translations. You may assemble a group of extremely bright specialists, but if there is no natural rapport among them, if they are not on the same page, they will just be wasting time trying to understand each other's intentions.

It is in this sense that chemistry is indeed more important than knowledge.

The Canyon Book

Much like the Grand Canyon, a good novel has multiple layers. While the main characters hash their way through the jungle of its plot, the book displays the unfolding drama simultaneously on several interconnected platforms, thus illuminating its salient aspects one by one. Life is intrinsically multifaceted, and because art loves to imitate it, most novels are like that. Their narratives cascade down in a host of parallel interactions without delineating clear borders between the individual fates. Flat linear stories wouldn't make the reality very enticing, would they?

Yet that's exactly what many tourists choose when they arrive at the edge of the Grand Canyon. They pop into the Visitor's Center and then they orderly skirt the rim, moving from one bus stop to another and clicking their point-and-shoots in a rhythmical monotony of marital conversation. They do get to see new formations at every overlook, but view them from the same elevation and consequently from the same vertical angle. Yep, even the Grand Canyon has a generic version. And that's all they get for their clicking efforts, unless they discover one of the inconspicuous inner trails and have a good sense of hopping on it.

Then the great book of the Colorado river suddenly opens. Every leg of the winding path opens a new chapter which shows its protagonists from a wide variety of angles - whether they be the protruding mesas, solitary buttes, massive promontories, labyrinthine inner canyons, half hidden precipices, rambling ridges or awe inspiring rock faces. Sometimes you can barely hang onto the steep path but the effort is richly rewarded. The elements that were almost invisible from the top now blossom in front of your eyes and even the previously seen features are altered by the new perspective and the slanting sun rays. And I am not even mentioning the endemic views that every elevation offers - the configurations that you simply won't see from anywhere else.

Trekking through life is a similar experience. You can view it from the rim, never leaving the social layer you happen to belong to, or you can find a concealed spoor and delve into it headlong. Despite of what your peers tell you, you may discover that every stratum has its unique and not easily emulated charm. That's mostly because fun is amazingly ubiquitous. A cushioned seat in the symphony hall can support just as much audio bliss as a wooden bench at a jazz concert. A margarita sipped at an opening night in an art gallery is as refreshing as a cold glass of beer downed after a soccer game. Whether you choose yacht or canoe, golf or bowling, National Audubon Society or a local club for advanced knitting techniques, new vistas will open right in front of your eyes. And best of all, denizens of each subculture will give you a different take on life. Sure, strutting out of a sailor's tavern in a deeply stewed disposition may compromise your social standing, but you will discover colors unseen. For the great thing about life is that it bursts with flavors no matter where you bite into it.

Just like the canyon trail.

ss

The Unsung Villain

Driving in the West makes you acutely aware of many things, not the least of which is the price of crude oil - currently hovering between $100 and $110. While on the East coast 200 miles moves you easily across several states, here it barely pushes you from one town to the next. And your gas tank is well aware of it.

In a country so depending on petrol, such price action calls for an immediate witch hunt. Every price conscious economic guru and a middle class champion spends considerable air time pointing their accusatory finger at various culprits - and there are quite a few to choose from. The industrial boom in developing markets consumes a lot of energy, especially in China and India. Hundreds of millions of their citizens are waking up to the pleasures of independent transportation. The specter of the Arab Spring circles around Saudi oil fields in ever tightening circles, while across the Mediterranean the control of the Libyan production seesaws whimsically between Colonel Gaddhafi and rebellious opposition forces. Recently, every talking head is slamming its forehead with a profound observation that the easy oil is gone and we'll all have to drill deeper into the sea, shale, arctic or some such hostile environment. Those are all valid reasons, but in the midst of all the learned handwringing, one culprit of skyrocketing gas prices is conspicuously missing. The monetary policy of the central bank - the Federal Reserve.

The heart of the matter is very simple. We pay for the crude with money. Under normal circumstances the value of that money is backed by the goods and services produced in the economy and as such it is relatively stable. However, if the central bank has to print (or electronically create) a lot of unbacked dollars, the value of each greenback tanks accordingly and with it the amount of stuff we can buy with it. Any monetary binge is like a flood, it lifts anything that floats. Anything that has an intrinsic value becomes more expensive - stocks, goods, oil, other commodities, grandfather clocks, you name it.

To paper over the costly blunders made in the runup to the banking crisis of 2008, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke simply conjured up trillions of fresh dollars on the Fed balance sheet and handed them over to the perpetrators - without demanding that the bondholders, shareholders or officers that profited from this Ponzi scheme be punished first. Such omission made the final cost higher and the excessive risk taking more popular than ever. Thus the wealthy moneychangers went back to their old games while we, the taxpayers, are stuck with the bill. And we'll pay for it slowly over the coming decades with the loss of the purchasing power of our currency.

To add insult to injury, his noble rescue efforts ended with high financiers. Take Louisiana fishermen, for instance, the most recent victims of our endless quest for more oil. After the BP disaster, they were left floundering on the well lubricated beaches - just like many other small businesses struggling for survival. No low interest loans came their way, although large corporations, often of foreign origin, had virtually unlimited access to the Fed's magic purse.

Bernanke's ongoing efforts to mop up the financial mess with our money wreaked an obvious havoc on its value and effectively made each family pay for the financial triage he implemented through higher prices - whether at the gas station or at the grocery store. Not that money printing solves anything, but in a subtle and diabolically clever way, it spreads the problem over a wider population. Everybody chips in a bit, so that the ill gotten gains from the bubble years don't have to leave the comfortably deep pockets. To paraphrase Churchill, never before have so many paid dearly for the mistakes of so few.

The central bank's 100th anniversary is approaching fast (in 2013). Perhaps we could use this occasion to take a break and with the cool head reevaluate its utility. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Fed's policies protect interests of the big banks rather than those of small depositors or the society as a whole. Bernanke's only excuse for the endless stream of bailouts has been the threat of a catastrophic financial collapse. Well, if that's the case then it is high time to redesign the monetary system in such fashion that our money would not be held hostage to the whims of the Wall Street cabal. Such reform might erase a zero or two from the size of their beloved bonuses, but for the rest of us, it will make the gas a little bit cheaper.

Curtailing the Fed's autocratic powers would be a good start.

The Peaks of Arizona

The West is majestic and mystical. The cathedral of freedom on one hand. The declaration of spirituality on the other.

And no, I don't mean the get-rich-quick kind of spirituality channeled by booming televangelists in their ostentatiously packed megachurches. I am talking about the natural spirituality of the land whose essence subtly resonates with its people - like a universal soul steeped in timeless legends and cloaked in a seemingly infinite prairie. Toss a basket full of feathers into a deep gorge and for a split second you catch a glimpse of the eternal truth. It can be a revealing experience.

The moment you hit the road in the West, you can sense a profound change in this planet's milieu. The fresh smell of the breeze, the loose fitting sky, the evening songs of the setting Sun, the distant horizon with a lick of an attitude. It's hard to describe, but any time I drive there, a wave of unforgiving beauty washes over me. It must be coming from the ubiquitous mountains - those frozen undulations of Earth that make the West so genuinely three dimensional. Those slumbering giants silently bathing in space.

And let's be clear: in the West, space is a staple. If you drive along I-40 west from Flagstaff, you'll see no shortage of it. And no shortage of mountains either. A range after range will unfold in front of your eyes and tempt your imagination to take a hike. The small bulbous hills that would make for a leisurely afternoon stroll. The higher tops whose conquest might warrant a full day trip. Even those crowned with reddish rocks that could require a bit of technical climbing. Each peak represents a standing dare. A slumbering dream bathing in your inner space.

And that's the true spirit of the West.

Being exposed to these challenges on a daily basis molds your character. It makes you take a risk. I bet if you delve into the foothills, each bluff will greet you with a little sign that says "Climb me!". Those little heapy rascals have no shame teasing you with the magic pill of this vast Wonderland. But it is more than a challenge. It is an invitation to unleash the loaded slings of opportunity.

gg

Tsunamis

Big actions have big consequences. Sometimes it may take a while for them to percolate through the maze of causes and effects, but eventually they make it to the surface. Often with a vengeance.

Japanese know this firsthand. The historic earthquake that tossed their main island some 8 feet aside last month wasn't the only torment inflicted on the world's third largest economy. It had a sinister accomplice - a massive and equally devastating tsunami that followed in its wake. The law of mechanics dictates that such colossal tectonic rearrangement is bound to have severe secondary effects. You simply cannot toss a refrigerator into a pond from the roof of your house and expect it to sink quietly to the bottom without causing a single wave.

Human history is no exception to this law.

A few weeks ago I visited Newseum in downtown DC - a multi-floor tribute to the popular modern trade of news gathering. One room that especially caught my eye had a large collection of front pages of major dailies sorted by year - all neatly arranged into a fascinating cross section of the twentieth century. Sometimes you appreciate the true impact of events only when you see them condensed into a compact timeline. As we were walking alongside the parade of cover stories, I realized how truly cataclysmic the second World War was. The destruction and carnage set off in motion by Adolf Hitler had acquired epic proportions even when judged by the savage standards of the human race, one of the most self-violent races in the known Universe. It was an unprecedented social earthquake, which - much like its geological counterpart - had serious consequences. The period following the War, say late 40s and early 50s, was a tumultuous time filled with aftershocks and tsunamis: the China revolution, the fall of Eastern Europe into Stalin's hands, the creation of Israel, independence of India and Pakistan, national awakening in Africa, you name it. Hundreds of revolutions were finding their way to the surface through the shaken foundations of the Old World.

But there is a more recent example. In 2008, the world's financial institutions experienced a series of major tremors. Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch were all wobbling like a set of wine tumblers in a liquor cabinet of a storm ridden ship. The Wall Street's proverbial "debt drunkenness" sent the tectonic plates of the world's banking system into a bout of furious spasms that were felt around the whole globe - from New York to Shanghai and right back via the confounded stock exchanges in London. Interestingly, three years later, with economy slowly recuperating, it seems that contrary to predictions of doomsayers we managed to emerge from this shock relatively unscathed.

Or did we? Sometimes, I get this eerie feeling that just below the monetary horizon a major tsunami is forming - soon to hit our shores with a vengeance.

Occoquan

Spring is like a reset button. A swing of the windshield wiper. Yet another chance to see with clear eyes what life on this planet is all about.

If I can, I try to greet it at some cool spot where its colorful entourage wouldn't feel awkward walking down the aisle. You don't entrust your first date to a restaurant randomly chosen from yellow pages, do you? This year, a friend of mine invited me for an improvised photo shoot to a tiny little town of Occoquan, barely outside the greater DC area, and that turned out to be just the kind of festive venue I was seeking. It had it all - something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Perfectly ready for the commencement of the new cycle of life.

The town itself is nestled on the banks of an eponymous river, barely visible from a bridge as you zip alongside the route 123, and hence quite easy to miss. With its minuscule size of roughly 3x4 blocs, it looks like a tiny kink on an otherwise smooth fabric of the local spacetime. You take an unassuming exit from the highway, the kind that could easily lead to another dimension or a smugglers' warehouse, and all of a sudden - there it is - as if some giant temporarily took it out of its pocket as it was picnicking on the river banks and just left it there. A place temporarily dismissed from mind.

The Main Street is the spine of this town, skirted with a row of recently built condos that stand in fragile dignity next to an old tavern and houses from a seemingly different geological era. Theirs is an awkward pose, kind of like when you are at a family reunion and your dad forces you to stand next to an absent minded and permanently semidrunk uncle who likes to wear noodle soup on his beard.

Flowing tongues of the river stalk the back side of the complex, while the front side issues several short side streets biting into the opposing hill with a rag tag bunch of architectural teeth. The blocks are further partitioned by a system of brick cobbled pathways surrounded with peculiar restaurants and odd shops selling anything from religious artifacts to porcelain trinkets. One of them had a tiny little gravel path winding in front of it and for some reason I imagined Johnny Depp taking a stroll on it, pushing his way through a cagelike construction and pondering the meaning of objects strewn in its vicinity. A strange mixture of Oz, Wonderland and a clean junkyard.

We took a table outside of a Belgian cafe for a short stop. The nearby trees were adorned with lampoons, chairs of wrought iron rested solidly on the floor and if you could tell a rooster from a hen on a hand painted door sign, you would be welcome to experience comfort of an old fashioned Gaelic lavatory. We ordered two cups of coffee and some waffles that arrived with such towering mound of whipped cream that I felt tempted to inquire about the degree of an avalanche alert today. Belgians, unaccustomed to high mountains, have apparently very little fear of uncontrollably sliding masses.

If there is a geographic pictionary of Virginia, the word "quaint" should be accompanied by a photograph of Occoquan. With plenty of blooming forsythias around and a name that sounds like a password into the secret chamber of a ceremonial shrine, it is a well suited place for the Rite of Spring.

gg

Interest Rate Haiku II.

Over the past two years, as the economy wended its way out of the deep ditch, I kept following Michael Shedlock's financial blog Global Economic Analysis. Here is a summary of some of my mini-observations that I left in its comment section under the screen name interest_rate_haiku.

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

2009 feb 22 (on record bonuses for wall street)

do you hear that sound?
even with the farm ablaze
pigs are at their troughs

2009 mar 21 (on calls for going deeper into debt)

Enter Sir Falstaff
(wiping grease off his fat lips):
I want to eat more!

2009 apr 4 (on blame for the rising unemployment)

remove L from blush
unemployee of the month
smirking from his ranch

2009 apr 18 (on unrealistic revenue expectations)

financial pipe dreams
made in fiscal blindia
got harry potter?

2009 nov 3 (on the state of pension funds)

bottom may be in
at the pool of McPension
but water is gone

2009 dec 19 (on record snow storm)

the fed solution:
just calm down everybody
we will print more snow!

2010 jan 17 (on escalation of war in afganistan)

emperor's new change
now weaved in afghanistan
tailored on wall street

2010 mar 13 (on low approval ratings for congress)

bank of politics
now proudly introducing:
subprime honesty

2010 may 8 (on flash crash and trading algorithms)

dear wizards of oz
and high frequency traitors
i bid you farewell

2010 jun 5 (on G-20 discussing bailouts)

G-20 dress code:
pantyhose over the head
(do I see a run?)

2010 jul 25 (on Larry Summers)

if only he knew
how deadly summers can be
for a butterman

2010 aug 15 (on poor track record of leading indicators)

now, can we all read
misleading indictators
their miranda rights?

2010 sep 19 (on small businesses and corporations)

when big agra wins
who'll pollinate the orchard?
silence of the bees

2010 sep 25 (on pressing needs of the financial sector)

call me dracula
no coughing on my coffin
i got pressing needs

2010 nov 21 (on Irish taxpayers enslaved by foreign banks)

Bearded Leprechaun
(more sham than rock) waved his wand:
The Land of Lepers

2010 dec 10 (on rising bond prices)

why do things fall down?
stern agent of gravity
name is bond, james bond

The Eye of a Tiger

Internet has changed the world at least as profoundly as the industrial revolution did more than a century ago. Exchanging ideas, images, files and videostreams with anyone anywhere in real time has tremendous consequences for our lives, both personal and professional.

Applications evolve at breakneck speed and the gadgetry which the World Wide Web entangles in its optical network evolves with it. Long gone are the days when a video camera was a gargantuan contraption that needed a tripod to support its own weight. The cams are so minuscule now that you can mount them on a helmet of a downhill skier, or a dashboard of a police car, and be part of the action as it happens.

I am not sure where the technology will be in 5 years, but it should be far enough to support an idea I wanted to see implemented for quite some time now - a live TigerCam. And I am talking the wild beast, not some slacker napping 24/7 on the floor of the big cat pavilion in the San Diego Zoo.

It should not be terribly hard. I think the technology is already there, and as long as we can trust the stats from the Indian government, the tigers are there as well. Just a dart of a tranquilizer, a little veterinarian operation mounting a tiny camera in some inconspicuous place, say on the lobe of the tiger's ear like an earring, or between its eyes like a "third eye" jewel, then an equally inconspicuous energy source and off to the jungle it goes again, broadcasting its every move. Literally.

And we'll just pour ourselves a glass of mango juice, turn on our PCs or Macs and peer into the world through the tiger's eyes.

We'll see it wake up in its lair, sneak its slender body through the underbrush of mangrove forests, and race across the grasslands in pursuit of its prey. We will sense when it tactically crouches, or when it boldly leaps across a shallow creek. We will be guessing which direction it'll turn its head as it reacts to the noises picked up by a microphone. We will be one with the tiger.

I bet you 2 Bengal Rupees, that the TigerCam would go viral just minutes after it was launched. So come on engineers and zoologists of the Ganghes basin - watching the Times Square webcam is getting old by the minute.

ff

Newspeak

When politicians open their mouths - and they do it quite habitually - the first thing that occurs to me is: "Why tell it like it is when such dazzling assortment of mirrors is readily available and smoke can be purchased at virtually unlimited quantities?" Or to put it curtlier - "Have they no shame"? Half a century ago, George Orwell pointed out that a creeping political rot can manifest itself in a certain disconnect between words and their meaning, which he aptly dubbed "newspeak". As with his other observations, he was right on the money. The garlands of platitude provide an early warning indicator that ranking officials are losing their political touch - instead of shaping the civic discourse, they spend more and more time groping the public opinion. And that's the beginning of the end. Once the form gets smothered with lipstick and the content starts slipping into factual insolvency, the hollowness is but a knock away.

Example. Two years ago, we bailed out our reckless banksters to the tune of several trillion dollars. We had mopped up the mess they so skillfully orchestrated, we had paid off the astronomical debts they so blissfully amassed. But do you think our congressfolks fessed up and admitted that their beloved donors who nearly annihilated the global financial system needed to have their bottom line boo boos blown at by a turbocharged ventilator? Nah. All the hectic and unprecedented triage was ostentatiously touted as a help to struggling homeowners, nay as a valiant effort to keep the American dream alive. Indeed, pounding your political chest on behalf of greedy banks would be borderline suicidal - better be seen rubbing your fatherly forehead on behalf of hoi polloi.

Yet it wasn't the homeowners who got zero interest loans from the Fed. In fact, many lost their homes in the ensuing carnage. It was exactly the hustlers who lined their pockets in the housing market Ponzi scheme - the big banks shareholders and bondholders - who were on the receiving end of this debt laundering operation. Still, despite the Wall Street's massive PR effort, many people saw right through it. This outcropping of newspeak was so thinly veiled that it almost made me wonder: "Do they assume we are all compulsive morons?"

More recent example. This past December, President Obama extended the Bush tax cuts despite the fact that we are actively engaged in two expensive wars and running a mammoth deficits at 10% of GDP. After a flatulent bout of kabuki with GOP, these ill-conceived benefits were awarded across the whole earning spectrum to include all the usual globalization profiteers - the high financiers, the enthusiastic job exporters, the advanced weaponry peddlers. After the shellacking in midterms, this outcome was no shocker: the Republicans are mostly rich, they hobnob with the rich and they naturally look out for them. But the idea of shoveling additional dough into the coffers of their golfing "buddies" - whether they recruited from Goldman Sachs, Haliburton, JP Morgan or British Petrol - would have difficulty flying in the post-collapse environment. Hence the Great Job Creating Newspeak was slapped on the ensuing polemic where it cleverly masked what amounted to looting of the Public Treasury. Never mind that no elected repressentator really explained why the super wealthy should bother creating jobs with their windfalls when they could get better return on investment in precious metals or emerging markets or why weren't we swimming in a pool of jobs to begin with, after nearly 10 years of rigorous application of the Trickle Down Theory.

That detail, however, prevented neither Speaker Boehner nor President Obama from going on a chirping offensive, celebrating in rare unison the lifeblood they just poured into economy's clogged veins. I am sure Lousiana fishermen will sleep so much better knowing that all those needy billionaires will finally be able to replace that imitation tiger rug in the third bedroom of their second yacht by the real deal. If we stay this course, vacuuming those rugs and scrubbing the yacht decks squeaky clean will be the only real jobs left. I guess my idea of job creation would be high income taxes and specific projects - like the Hoover dam. That is what I'd consider an oldspeak. You know - say where the money comes from and also say where it will go to. But verbal prestidigitation and vague references to flows of hundred of billions of dollars mysteriously gushing from the horn of the Federal Reserve and inundating the financial markets don't sound very concrete to me. Admittedly, some of them may eventually seep onto the balance sheets of multinational corporations, but most will probably drown in the swamp of red tape and bureaucratic incompetence, never to be seen by an average Joe.

That leaves us with a natural question: where does the political newspeak come from? A great opportunity to see under the hood of its glistening body is the current skirmish about raising the federal debt ceiling. On the one hand we have the White House pushing hard to maintain its bloated budget, on the other we can see Republicans attempting to dust off their fiscal sanity mantra which they conveniently suspended during the Bush years spendopalooza. The exorbitant levels of grandstanding and posturing make it hard to identify the real sources of mischief. After all, in the heat of a high profile battle, common sense is often the first casualty, especially when everyone's agenda bag is loaded like the front row at a mafia funeral. But if you step back into cooler times, you can find great words of wisdom. Not so long ago (March 2006), when he was still but a Senator, President Obama had much healthier sentiment towards the issue of public debt:

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies...

Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that 'the buck stops here'. Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."

There. That was some clarity of vision. The resolve of a young king.

But how quickly do political winds change! How quickly does the fresh blood of a young Senator become infected with the virus of easy money. I guess having your name printed on the White House stationery can radically sway your opinion about "leadership failure", especially when your principal whisperers, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, are well soaked in the bubbling pot of Wall Street finance. There is a reason why Obama's campaign got almost a cool million from Goldman Sachs alone - roughly four times as much as John McCain. Financial sector is the main pusher of the poisonous debt. They create the credit out of thin air and they profit from its distribution tremendously.

This is the perennial bane of all politicians - the higher they are the longer the list of special interests they are beholden to. And that is also the ultimate source of the newspeak. The competing and frequently conflicting interests of those who lifted you to power won't allow you to say anything with real substance let alone spunk.

Purr of the Moment

To my own detriment, I am not much of a planner. I live from one moment to the next. With a bit of exaggeration, I could say that I view every passing minute as a room in the palace of life with multiple doors leading to other minutes. Which specific door I choose to open next depends on many factors. What kind of noises do I hear from the other room? How appealing is the door frame? What is my risk tolerance today? Have I been there before?

And sometimes I open a door just for fun. Out of curiosity.

Needless to say, robots are pretty low on my list of role models. In my system of values, methodical analysis carries about as much natural appeal as hiatal hernia. I would not make a good wedding planner. Nor would I be a particularly competent Royal Protocol Officer. I'd much rather haphazardly roam though the highlands of Scotland than follow a detailed itinerary during a leisure trip to Aberdeen.

I just don't like to see my future bound in the straight jacket of a blueprint or a timetable. Don't get me wrong, life should certainly have a skeleton - I just prefer mine to come from an instinct rather than reason. I have always preferred the vibrant chaos of a tropical jungle to the orderly neatness of a developed farmland. The fact that I grew up in the Soviet Bloc and have personally witnessed the spectacular economic failure of planned economy may have contributed, too. But my predilection for living off the cuff has yet another root - one that has to do with psychology. Planning distorts our perception of reality and thus indirectly affects our happiness.

The moment you plan an event, you create its image in your mind and that image is somewhat idealized. When the reality finally happens, it has to compete really hard with this image and the outcome can be devastating. The more details you put in your plan, the more aspects that your mind carefully optimized can be left wanting. Reality just does not have the budget to beat expectations. And even if it did, by the time the event happens you may not even be in the mood to appreciate it. Not to mention that destiny has a way of derailing the best thought out plans.

Spur-of-the-moment decisions have no standards to measure up to. They enter the ever changing world in the chariot of imagination and have supreme reign over its course. You go where your heart wants to go. Spontaneity leads you through the verdant valleys of now and into the green pastures of very soon. It tracks your mood with a precision of laser guided missiles. And when you absorb all the sensory input you get - the sounds, the smells, the reflections, the noises, the shapes, the harmony - you become a slab of violin wood. You resonate. You realize that a moment can purr like a content cat.

Nothing against planning, but it is my empirical experience that last minute decisions are the ones that often produce the most memorable events. Improvisation is like a trek through the Old West. No roads to follow, no museums to visit, no entrance fees to pay, just the smell of virgin land tickling your sense of adventure.

gg

Tahrir Square Avalanche

There are many places on Earth where a reasonably rational person could expect an avalanche - Juneau, Alaska, Rogers Pass in British Columbia, Himalayas, Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia or the Princeton Institute for Advanced Avalanche Studies if there is such thing. But you would be hard pressed against a sheer rock to look for it in the middle of the capital of Egypt. Yet that is exactly where one happened this month. An unstoppable avalanche of public anger and pent up frustration swept the deeply entrenched president Hosni Mubarak right into the dumpster of history. As if the downtrodden descendants of mighty pharaohs suddenly remembered the Golden Rule of Political Hygiene. You change your dictators at least once every 30 years.

Political avalanches have various causes. Sometimes external, sometimes internal. Removing an obstacle that supports a critical amount of snow can do the trick, as exemplified by a domino of anti-communist revolutions that thundered through Eastern Europe in 1989 after the rigid reign of Leonid Brezhnev was gradually replaced by a more liberal Michail Gorbachev. In the case of Egypt, however, I think the avalanche was set off by internal strain. The kind you get when snow slowly accumulates at the edge, one flake at a time, at first without any visible effect, just quietly piling layer upon layer until, in one moment, its cohesion can no longer support its own weight and - all of a sudden - the whole mass bursts into motion.

Egyptians are not known to be notorious rabble rousers. They endured their longstanding dictatorial regime with unusual restraint. Year after year they meekly swallowed the humiliation of the tyrannical rule and tried to ply their trade as best as they could. But one persecution after another, one silenced opposition voice at a time, the overhang of discontent grew larger and larger. After 30 years of living in the shadows, something suddenly snapped. The snowdrift could not support itself any more. The chalice of malice overflowed. The people made their move and nothing could stop them.

Just like the freshly fallen snow which rides on top of an avalanche, it was the youngest faces that surfaced from within the fist shaking crowd. It was their hallmark courage that sustained the revolutionary spirits in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

See, older folks carry the scars of their own lost battle with the regime - they learned to live with it, like you learn to live with a chronic disease. They learned not to stick out their necks. They learned to enjoy small pleasures of life found on the regime's periphery. They learned how to make compromises. The kids don't come equipped with those skills. The new generation wants their dreams unadulterated.

You could see that uncompromising attitude in the CNN interview with a young Google executive Wael Ghonim whose Facebook network was instrumental in starting this uprising. With determination and fervor of a true leader, he spoke through the camera's lens directly to the regime: "We are getting back our country. You guys have been ruining this country for 30 years. Enough. Enough. Enough"

That was a pure resolve.

Yep, snowbanks grow slowly and quietly, but once they get moving, you better get out of the way.

In August 1980, a little known Polish electrician without any political function or influence scaled a fence in the Gdansk ship yard and energized the workers striking for better conditions. His name was Lech Walesa. He became the independent union leader, the symbol of the Freedom Movement in times when his country was merely a Soviet satellite, and eventually the President of Poland.

So here is to Wael Ghonim. May he one day become the President of Free Egypt.

Genesis

(jabberwocky)

stuck in a creaky elevator for eternity
some five thousand floors below the ground
devil in a gray sheen suit leaned smoothly over
and stuck its forked tongue in angel's ear
tiny watery peas came rolling down her cheeks
she bit her rosy lips in blinded determination
her fingers squeezed dried flowers in her pocket
while a pair of well hidden ceiling speakers
kept softly crooning: happy birthday to you

tears in bloom
fine feathered tomb

unprepared dish
wishes and fish

now rolling the dice
don't close your eyes

on the ninth floor an iron foot kicked the door open
six billion polished ping pong balls poured into the vestibule
their optical syncopation flickering on gilded walls
six billion tap dancing judges, no longer an empty court
a gallop of major chords parted their cascading swarm
to make way for a dark bearded man with massive veins
riding a prancing eraser down the marble staircase of memory
look - he's got a shiny brass trombone at his mouth
and frazzled angel with downy wings clinging to his back

z1

Fractional Reserve Lending

Henry Ford once observed: "It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning." Fractional reserve lending, which is at the heart of our banking system, is indeed one of the most subtle scams in the whole entire Universe.

On the surface, lending is a fairly straightforward business. Suppose you have an extra $10000, while a good friend of yours has a brilliant business plan. You have idling money in your mattress, your friend has a profitable idea, so you naturally help him out and bankroll his enterprise. The value of your previous hard work will be put to good use, and for this friendly service you get rewarded with interest.

The trouble is that sometimes there is no good friend around to utilize people's dormant capital and that led to formation of the banking system. Banks look after your extra cash and, while you have no immediate need for it, loan it to people who have, and are willing to pay a little fee for the privilege. Banks essentially function as a matchmaker, which is a valuable service for which they take a cut in the form of an interest spread.

However, most laymen think that when a bank lends money, it comes from some depositor's account; that the value of the loan is fully backed by someone's hard work. That is not true. Banks may lend up to 10 times of what they are collecting. So if you deposit say $100, not only can your bank lend out that amount, but it can continue lending up to roughly $1000. It makes 10 loans with your capital. Thus when you take a loan, the bank does not just transfer someone else's money to you, in most cases it simply creates it by an accounting trick. Of course, the banks won't share the interest coming from those extra loans with you. You get your little interest on the first loan, while the remaining nine generate interest solely for the banksters' pockets, despite the obvious fact that you are the one who provided the capital to begin with.

This lovely habit harks back to the Middle Ages when goldsmiths issuing gold certificates for stored bullion realized that on the average only about 10% of physical gold was claimed back at any given time. Cunningly, they started issuing more deposits than they had gold for and today's banks just happily continue this tradition. In plain terms, this is nothing else than sanctioned counterfeiting, which is why our current monetary system would better be named Fractional Reserve Pretending.

That brings us to the crucial question: As the amount of goods and services in the whole economy expands, and the money supply needs to expand with it (to prevent deflation), who should have the right to implement it? Should bankers be allowed to rake in obscene profits just by creating money out of thin air and then lending it to us at interest? This is something that should be subject of a serious political debate. I am not an economist, but in my ideal world such sovereign prerogative should benefit the whole nation, not just its financiers.

I would say the banks should implement the full reserve lending and cede ALL money creation to a fully public central bank. This would allow interest collected from the expanded money supply during economic boom to go back to the Treasury and, by extension, to the people. You could build bridges and hospitals with this interest, you could fund research in new technologies and energy resources, you could use it for federal emergency assistance. That would provide much better social service than luxurious private yachts of Goldman Sachs alumni.

Transferring the money creation solely to a central bank would also simplify the current feed back mechanism. If any given commercial bank had more entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas than people with capital, and the bank would think the ideas were worth it, they could then ask the central bank to create the extra money and lend it to them at interest. Again, the bank's core source of income should be the interest rate spread (the difference between the rate at which they borrow from the central bank and lend to the entrepreneur). In good times the central bank would raise the interest rate to discourage runaway lending, in bad times they would lower it. Banks would be less willing to go on a reckless lending binge, if most of the profits from a further credit expansion went into the public Treasury.

There is no apparent reason why bankers should be the richest people on Earth. After all, they are just matchmakers. They do not produce anything of value. They do not create revolutionary inventions, or miracle drugs, they don't write engrossing bestsellers. When you drive down a small town's main street, the shiniest building on the block will invariably be a local bank. Why should that be? That building should belong to an architectural studio, to an engineering firm or a software development company. Again, it should belong to people who produce and create.

Bankers certainly deserve good salaries for their service, but the easy windfalls coming from usurping the right to create money should not be theirs. They effectively come from raping our currency. If banking was redefined to serve our communities, as it was originally intended, it would have beneficial effects on careers decisions, too - more smart people would be considering productive careers in engineering, technology, sciences, manufacturing, farming or arts, rather than dreaming about get-rich-quick schemes conjured up by the Wall Street.

The true importance of this issue can be gleaned from the words of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the well known international banking dynasty: "Let me issue and control a nation's money and I care not who writes the laws". In the 21st century, it is outright outlandish to let bankers still get away with this game. We should return the control of our currency to the people of the land to whom it rightfully belongs. Separating the commercial and investment banking and placing severe restrictions on what the banks can do with our money would be a good start.

Slippery When White

You only start appreciating something when you lose it, they say. Whoever "they" are, they didn't tell me that one day I'd be fitting this old adage to friction.

Last Wednesday afternoon, it started snowing pretty hard. An endless stream of tiny parachutes was invading the Earth. Within an hour, the whole landscape turned into a billboard for the dairy industry. Coming from a relatively cold Czechoslovakia, I did not panic and left work only when I saw about 8 inches of shredded ice lying idly on the ground without any intention of thawing.

I whisked out an old dust pan that I keep in the trunk for emergencies and started liberating my car and its vicinity from the white oppression. The act of snow shoveling, or rather snow troweling, was no picnic and it filled my heart with a sudden and sincere appreciation for rain which - I figured - would have been much easier to ladle away.

After I removed most of the snow, I hopped in and put the car in reverse. As I let the clutch slowly engage, it became clear to me that this is an "Extra Wet Ultra Slick, No Friction Whatsoever or Your Money Back" kind of snow. A formidable foe. A sense of foreboding started to condense on my back in the form of little sweat droplets. As I plowed my way to the parking lot exit, I attempted to take a right turn only to find out that my steering wheel had become a zombie - technically operational and moving but not really performing its intended functions. It was about as useful as a portable French horn dispenser. I felt like driving one of those kiddie cars with fake controls. No matter what I did, the car continued wherever it wanted, which was largely downhill to the bottom of the lot in blatant disregard of my wishes that I tried to communicate through increasingly desperate turns of the steering wheel. I put pedal to the metal with enough willpower to hypnotize a medium size bear, but no measurable motion was effected. I was hopelessly stuck.

While I pondered the options, the manager of our building noticed my predicament and came out with a snow blower. After a brief pow-wow (well, more wow than pow), he offered to clear up a narrow escape path for me and also help me push the car to the exit. Long story short, after two more maintenance staff joined the pushing effort, I made it onto the street. A sense of relief was nearly palpable. But it lasted only till I realized that the road did not have much more to offer in the way of traction. Even without deep snow to push through, my wheels were spinning like Stalin in his grave after 20 years of watching Russian capitalism. Fortunately, I live only about 2 miles away, so I asked the kind trio of volunteers for a final push back into the parking lot and decided to walk home.

That turned out to be the correct solution. The traffic was super heavy and occasional smell of smoldering rubber indicated that I was not the only one having problems with a grip. The back road I usually take to work resembled a parking lot, or more accurately a turtle impersonating contest as it soon transpired that I was the fastest object on it. Much faster than all those expensive miracles of modern technology - the Audis, the Buicks, the Fords, the BMWs. Their wretched Masters held impotently onto bridles of hundreds of horses neighing under the hood, as all the vaunted power of fossil fuels idled in vain. Lightheartedly I strutted by, smiling like an owner of a tropical beehive and seemingly running on a little more than a wisp of liquefied moonshine. After an ordeal in the parking lot, the trek home filled me with a well deserved sense of superiority as if I had single handedly won a major battle of the ongoing war between Men and Machines.

At an intersection close to my apartment complex, I balanced my good will account and helped two Indian girls push their car up a slight hill. They had obviously had very little experience with wintry conditions and must have been under a strong impression that bringing the God of Friction a burnt offering in the form of smoking tires would be enough to propel their Toyota across the intersection. The next day when I walked back to work to reclaim my car, I noticed another young lady - also of Indian origin - trying to clean up her car with a common kitchen spatula. I guess they don't get much exposure to snow around Mumbai.

The journey home which usually take 5-7 minutes, took me two hours to complete. But on the plus side, walking from work was a healthy exercise for which - no doubt - I would get a Thank You note from my heart. Not to mention a little P.S. from my eyes for the delicate poetry of snowed in residential areas.

gg

Peak Oil

The price of crude oil has climbed over $90 again.
And I think I know why.

Nope, it's not because of the demand from emerging economies.
Nor is it because Bernanke is vehemently debasing our currency.
It is the dinosaurs!

(or whoever is responsible for that stuff that the crude is made out of)

Whenever I drive up to a gas station nowadays, I smell a class action law suit against these Jurassic monsters for purposefully vomiting in hard to reach places. Come on, one hundred miles off the coast of Brazil? You must be kidding me.

As if they couldn't have deposited their waste in an easily accessible area, preferably within conveyor belt distance from a major refinery of the future. But no, that would be too much to ask of their little brains.

I can almost hear those scaly bastards living it up in some remote Alaskan valley: "Hey dudes, let's party like it's 64,999,999 BC! We are too big to fail, right?"

Wild Quest

The heartland of most classical sciences has been vigorously strip mined for centuries. And we have quite a lot to show for it. Human ingenuity distilled their laws, formulas and theorems into technological and social progress. Fortunately for us this natural resource shows little signs of depletion. Motherloads of useful knowledge are still awaiting our jackhammers in the quarries of interdisciplinary frontiers. There, alongside the unexplored border regions, lies the Wild West of scientific opportunity, untamed rivers ready to yield their precious nuggets to avid prospectors unencumbered by canon of established doctrines.

Discovering new science, however, is like discovering a tropical island.

It is not a linear process. Nor is it orderly. There is no blueprint for collecting and synthesizing information. The quest for wisdom proceeds in fits and starts as it is furthered by many disparate groups and subcultures, by myriad of intrepid individuals who clamber over each other like ants hustling chaotically around an anthill. Equipped only with a compass of intuition, they all grope haphazardly through the maze of trial and error.

Members of each subculture share their own unique point of view shaped mostly by their educational and personal history. This common background forms a prism through which they see the objects of study; it constitutes a jurisdiction of sorts which they instinctively try not to overstep. As they struggle with the barrage of new facts, each group gradually develops their own jargon and procedures reflecting their native lore which in turn entails redundancy and intellectual isolation. The only unifying force that binds them weakly together is their curiosity about the subject and the thirst for knowledge. Other than that they are on their own, chiseling away at their particular facet. Sciences have become so specialized these days that creative cross pollination is a rare occurrence and those who enter advanced fields of study probably feel like Robinson Crusoe.

A tropical island is a similarly multifaceted entity. It looks one way from a cruising ship, and quite another from a flying airplane. It has a certain feel to tourists in a seaside vacation resort, and a very different one to natives from a little village deep inland. Their opinions about various realities of the island may bear no resemblance to each other. People from the ship are able to observe its relief and general kind of vegetation and may also be aware of its position in the surrounding region, something not entirely apparent to the natives, unless they venture far into the sea. People from the passing airplane see clearly the island's contours and the texture of its geology. The natives may not know the exact shape of the island as seen from the above or its relative position in the archipelago, but they know its inner workings: they know where to fish and where to plant crops, they know where the poisonous snakes are and where they can collect healing herbs. Finally, the people from the vacation resort have a mixture of both worlds. They know the island partly from the outside and partly from the inside, albeit both from a rather shallow perspective.

New interdisciplinary scientists are in a similar position as island explorers - at first it must seem to them that their partial experiences are irreconcilable with those of their colleagues across the aisle. A group of pilots flying frequently over the island will have a different sense of it than the natives, so to speak. Every cooperative human endeavor is born fragmented. But as similarities manifest themselves and the notion of common subject is acknowledged and even embraced, the need for a mutually agreeable platform emerges. True identities of objects will be taken into consideration. Wars over the meaning of words will be waged. Great methodological debates will be held. Walls of tentative dogmas will be erected, fiercely defended, then torn down and soon re-erected elsewhere and then torn down again.

Take a rain forest for instance. What looks like a distant outcropping of a leafy biomass from the ship, and a rather boring patch of green tarpaulin from the airplane, is in fact a much more intricate organism. Only a native, or an especially adventurous tourist, could find out that the forest is populated with a baffling variety of species and that its canopy hides a smorgasbord of fruits and nuts, something not easily seen from 37,000 feet. But eventually all competing groups realize that their viewpoints can be united and that it is in their interest to accept a shared narrative and terminology.

Over time, through scores of exchanges in the free market place of ideas, a new science is born - a collaborative effort of a whole corps of scholars, researchers, volunteers, academics, engineers, practitioners, tinkerers, scouts, technicians, scientists, thinkers, and yes, an occasional nut or two. Although you wouldn't be able to see those from 37,000 feet.

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Tucson

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, a young loner named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on participants of a United States congresswoman's meeting with constituents held in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Twenty people were shot, six of them fatally and U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords is in a critical condition. In a sinister twist, a little girl born on September 11 died in that shooting too.

A cold act like this leaves us gasping for words. Our daily life does not prepare us for such extraordinary lapse of humanity. But as time plods on, we are forced to absorb the reality and adjust. Eventually, words appear and when they do, it is telling what kind of emotions and hidden agendas they reflect. While a number of commentators had risen above the ramparts of their ideological castles and showed proper decorum, others wasted little time and got right back to tilling their stretch of arable bigotry. The ensuing festival of finger pointing produced a tasteless tug-of-war between a right wing nut theory and its left wing counterpart. Previous girlfriends were summoned to testify, past records were scrutinized, some MySpace accounts archived, and Twitter suddenly turned into a reliable source of information. The most disappointing fact though was an assumption - common to both camps - that their form of hatred is somehow nobler than the one they were frothing about.

The trauma of the shock is rarely a good time for analysis. It is more a time to remind ourselves that we live in a complex world in which no single doctrine can claim to hold all the answers. However trite it may sound, each of us owns but a tiny little piece of truth and we would do a great service to our country and to ourselves if we started listening to each other rather than waving our cherished partisan flags and digging for political capital - whether we get our flavor of truth from Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck. But in the barrage of arguments and counterarguments, attacks and counterattacks, humility was barely heard.

As I watched the Sunday morning shows, I noticed a lot of calls for toning down the divisive rhetoric. While that is certainly a valid concern, it only addresses the symptoms, not the cause of the violence. And as every good doctor knows you can't have a completely recovery without identifying the heart of the problem and treating it. Sure, the media addicted to blatant sensationalism will always be happy to report on a little controversy. That's just media being media. But someone should stand up and ask where is all that vitriol coming from. Why is a significant chunk of the population slipping into radical mindframe and general mistrust?

If you read the comments section in blogs and newspapers, one theme that stands out is the growing perception that there are in fact two Americas. One located roughly in the corridor between New York and Washington DC, and the other spread uniformly over the rest of the country. One enjoys the sunshine pouring down on a privileged class comprised of powerful elites and wealthy moneychangers, and the other, populated by the hoi polloi of Ohio, Michigan or Alabama, is being rained on day in and day out. With this kind of social milieu and a spreading feeling of injustice, it is only a matter of time until some deviant mind in the crowd wakes up from its apathy and takes its frustration to the nearest gun shop.

After our elected representatives return from their respectful hiatus, they should take a deep look inside their collective soul and ask themselves whether they are steering the country in the right direction. Why do so many citizens feel that the laws are written by lobbyists with generous corporations in mind? Why do young people feel disenfranchised from the world where personal connections seem more important than skills or knowledge? With the approval ratings for Congress hovering near historic minimums, such introspection would be a great way of honoring the memory of those that lost their lives in this lunacy.

Going after the causes, rather than symptoms.

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