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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: March 2012

A Letter from the Dark Side

Biting the hand that feeds you is never a good career move. But if the hand that feeds you also fumbles in our collective pocket, perhaps an exception can be made.

Last week New York Times printed a peculiar farewell letter of one of Goldman Sachs London executives. The heartfelt scorcher by Greg Smith titled "Why I am leaving Goldman Sachs" had all the usual verbal trappings of the financial industry insider: "toxic and destructive environment", "sidelining client interests", "decline in the firm's moral fiber", the works. Naturally, such barrage of scathing criticism could not come without frowning reverberations in the press. Indeed, a number of otherwise temperate commentators hopped more than happily on the bank bashing band wagon.

But we should be careful not to throw out the baby with bathwater here. It's not that banking is inherently evil. It's just that its practice over the past decade or so has come seriously astray. Let me give an example.

Fixing cars is an honest business that we all are familiar with. You drive your car to the garage, state the problem and mechanics will do their best to fix it. Of course, they don't do it out of the goodness of their heart. For this service they collects an appropriate fee. That is how capitalism works.

Now imagine a town, let's call it Crookedville where mechanics treat your car in ways that could politely be described as somewhat dubious. They change some of its functioning parts by older and less functioning ones, they use the car for their own personal errands while it is in the garage, they talk you into additional and unnecessary repairs over the phone, they may pour inferior oil into its innards. When you get your car back - you suspect nothing wrong. It runs fine, everything seems normal. Yet in nefarious ways your car, and by extension you, has just been taken advantage of. And that has nothing to do with capitalism.

Banks provide useful services, too. They channel our capital to worthy entrepreneurs and for this service they deserve a reasonable fee. But it is their job to check reputation and credit worthiness of such borrowers. It is also their job to give savers, who provide the capital to begin with, a decent interest rate. It is not their business however to distribute funny money hand over fist to everyone with a heartbeat and then stick the taxpayers with the associated risks. It is not their business to tamper with the value of our currency for their own benefit. And it is not their business to herd their customers into inferior and opaque financial products.

If the global burden of debt reached such insane levels that merely maintaining the current levels of growth forces banks to engage in fraudulent behavior, then it is time to draw a firm line in the sand. It is up to the remaining honest captains of this industry to recognize the sordid state of affairs and steer the ship away from Crookedville even if it means sailing through slower waters.

Yes, that would imply less glitzy life for Wall Street, but over a long run it could earn for it some of the respect that it has lost. The operative word being "earn". I am not talking about that fleeting obeisance which issues forth from a frothy flock of acolytes singing praises to their material trinkets. Such respect is as phoney as the trillions of dollars that the central banks are flooding the capital markets with in order to create an illusion of prosperity. The true organic respect has to be earned by providing valuable service to the community. It cannot be conjured into existence by pressing the GO button on Ben Bernanke's money printing press.

If enough high financiers realized this (and that is a big if) then their subordinates would be able to devote more of their intellectual capacity to helping the global economy and less to writing vitriolic farewell letters.

I know. Dream on.

Photographer's Choice

Opportunities do not last forever. That is one of the most important lessons we all eventually learn. Life presents us with a mind boggling series of choices, but more often than not those choices have fine printed expiration dates. Yes it would be great if we could take some time off any time we are presented with a dilemma and ponder all its ramifications in the quiet comfort of our homes. But it does not work that way. By the time we reach the optimal solution, the changed circumstances may no longer allow it.

Examining the facts with all their attendant consequences is great, but gut reaction is often the way to go. That line separating spontaneity and premeditation is the same line which runs through a photographer's mind when she sees a great but ephemeral shot and has to decide whether to think about it and choose the right angle, or just grab a camera and sideswipe whatever happens to be passing in front of her eyes on its way into oblivion. And that's not an easy choice. Some shots last for a while, and positioning your tripod carefully will pay off handsomely. But some have a half-life of a transuranium element, and if your fingers dawdle just for a second the image will poof on you without refund.

If you think about it that is exactly how it is with life. We can either capture whatever comes our way, or wait in eternity for the planets to align optimally again.

Success is determined not only by our ability to find the correct solution, but - perhaps more importantly - also by our instinct which tells us how much time we have to arrive at it. Deciding on the fly whether we can afford a little analysis, or whether we need to shoot from the hip - that is our own photographer's choice.


The Artist

Silent movie winning the Best Picture at the 2012 Oscars. Who would have thought?

What kind of deviously twisted mind could have come up with the idea of resurrecting an old fashioned black and white flick in the age of new fashioned digitized spectacles brimming with real time 3D computer simulations? Whoever it was must have been aware of the old Russian proverb "New is something that has long been forgotten". People dig for new fads all the time. The whole history of art is but a search for that new angle. Utilizing dialogue free narrative makes you peek where no one has peeked before, or rather where no one has peeked for quite some time.

They say that people who lose one of their senses become more sensitive and alert to the stimuli of the other ones. Every now and then, it pays to submit your creative outlets to the restrictive discipline of an old form. You never know what hidden treasures may be brought to light in such rendering. Shooting a movie without colors and without a dialogue certainly emphasizes aspects of film making that we customarily overlook.

The Artist is a motion picture in its deepest sense. It is a picture in motion - a flaunting cascade of studies in intensity. In the barrage of recent movies trying to outeffect each other, the Artist is an unexpected oasis suddenly materializing amid the never ending dunes of silicon graphics. A well orchestrated masterpiece of life harking back to days when cinematography was a craft rather than a visualization experiment.

Director Michel Hazanavicius pampers our artsy buds with finely assembled visual picnic - freshly baked bread of action, earthy wines of pantomime and assorted fruit baskets of sentimentality - all neatly spread out on the blanket of the silver screen. Tiptoeing along the fragile border between smile and laughter, he unearths troves of long forgotten jewels from the abandoned mine of facial expressions. So much so that one could easily talk about a major emotion picture. From the beginning to the end, the movie flows smoothly like a small submarine tracking the unfolding plot only indirectly through the periscope of title cards. Sometimes poetic in a sublime way, sometimes a little tongue in cheek, but always carrying a specific nuance to its final destination in the eye of the beholder. And actually a little bit beyond - through the sluice of the optical nerve onto the wide ocean of our imagination.

And there it rests its case.

When I left the theater, I had an uncanny feeling for a few minutes that I am now myself part of a motion picture. The whole world turned into one giant decoration. My journey to the parking lot seemed to be split into several long takes, people passing us on the way out seemed like extras, I almost felt the need to start touching things to make sure they are three dimensional. But it was just an echo of the Artist splashing in my mind like water in a bath tub carried across a long stretch of rugged desert.

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