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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2011


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.


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.


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?

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