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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: December 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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