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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: July 2011

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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