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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: May 2012

Aerial Bridge Across the Ages

The other day I saw a nature show on TV about whales. The one image that stuck in my mind was that of a baby whale trudging alongside a mama whale as it was learning to swim on its own. The fledgling little behemoth was trying to keep up but every now and then it had to be nudged in the right direction. The image of a formidable, multiple ton mammal displaying parental tenderness seemed like a visual oxymoron. But it was moving in a way.

"Moving" is not a word I would normally associate with an Air Show. Sentimentality has little place in an enterprise brimming with military might, high-tech swagger and pilots' bravado. However, last week's Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base proved me wrong on that count. A weekend extravaganza held just outside of the Washington's Beltway managed to inject a little heart into the high-octane parade of the aluminum and titanium machinery.

The show flaunted the well polished hardware of the mightiest Air Force in the world. Bulging cargo planes opened up their reinforced bellies to loitering crowds. Wide eyed kids had a chance to sit at cockpits filled with mysterious dials and levers. Circuitry aficionados could study the wiry details of exposed innards. Formidable helicopters and sleek fighter jets stood silently on the tarmac, displayed prominently like some giant toys in a window shop. History buffs could compare their recollections with reality, and - in a way - so could taxpayers. But besides all this paraphernalia, the program also featured several flying demonstrations, including the famous vertical takeoff Harrier. But the one I am alluding to in the opening paragraph was titled the Heritage Flight. It was a tandem flyover in which a historical P-51 Mustang cruised above the spectators accompanied by the futuristic looking F-22 Raptor. Against the backdrop of a carefully chosen music this technological pastiche created a powerful impression. The passing of a legacy from one generation to another.

It was symbolism of this scene that made it moving. As the old WW2 fighter sputtered across the blue and white skies, it brought the image of a baby whale followed by its mama back to my mind. Although in this case the roles were reversed. An elderly parent was gently supported by a grown up child on the way to the store. At this one moment the clouds seemed to form an invisible bridge connecting two parallel Universes. Two slices of the spacetime merged into one.

I wondered what the mechanics who worked on that plane during the second World War would have thought of this image. They'd probably try to squeeze a tear forming in the corner of their eye.


Facebook Defaced

Facebook, meet reality.

Reality, this is Facebook.

After months of feverish preparations, just as the waves of anticipation started cresting at the investment shore, the company that was being hyped as a hypothetical new Google finally launched its IPO (initial public offering). And as is often the case in instances of mass hysteria, it all climaxed rather unexpectedly - not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Despite the fact that the whole operation had been handled by top-notch investing professionals who under normal atmospheric conditions would be perfectly capable of selling flood insurance to Saharan nomads, the IPO fell far short of expectations already during the first hours of trading. And in the days to come it kept falling shorter and shorter. None of the hyper-connected enthusiasts brimming with virtual compassion could save it. None of the young guns friending the whole world from the hip could save it. None of the big boys with pockets filled with casino chips could save it. The valuations just didn't compute.

But before the vaunted analysts and headache specialists figure out what went wrong, I would like to offer Facebook a few well meant tips how to increase their cash flow.

1. Pet Facebook

Enough of critter discrimination. Facebook needs to open its business to other species. That is where the growth is. The market for homo sapiens is already too saturated. Bring your pets online (although I have a suspicion that many are already there). Let them scratch on the wall. Let them update their status to purring or howling. Let them friend the neighborhood coons. Let them develop their bovine networks. There are billions of spiders on the web already. Come on, Facebook, give them their own accounts.

2. Adopt a dictator

This should be a no-brainer. Dictators usually sit on a big heap of cash and - at the same time - are in desperate need of friends. I am sure they would be willing to sponsor their own networks. This is simply a match waiting to happen. Just a small cut from these transaction would make Facebook's Chief Financial Officer smile like a new moon. Wondering whether to accept Fidel or Hugo? Ali or Bashar? Your choice. And who knows, maybe the notorious autocrats would open up and share with us some of their likes and dislikes. We may learn that Kim Jung Un has an irrational fear of being stabbed in the back by a poisoned carrot. Everything is possible. And if you know how to write good apps, you can sell them used bomb shelters to boot.

3. The Chinese Wall

Forget those little panels where friends scribble about what floated in their cereal bowl today and how they felt about it. We need to think big. Really big. Facebook needs a large centralized awe inspiring wall for all to see. A wall that could absorb all the profound comments generated by the recent concert tour of Esoteric Hernia. A wall where everyone would have a voice. A wall that would be funded by the cash rich Chinese government.

4. Insurance to the Rescue

We live in a surveillance world. Apparently some employers are now screening Facebook for signs of inappropriate behavior in the profiles of their prospective hires. Since this trend is more likely to intensify in the near future, it is time to introduce Facebook to the lucrative business of private insurance. Wanna make sure your career is protected in case your boss finds out that you are secretly kissing frogs in the park or bowing profusely to the porcelain throne? Our coverage specialists would be happy to design a contract for you that will fit your personal needs.

5. Central Friends Bank

This could be Facebook's crowning achievement. At some point the world will run out of natural friends, and then the ability to generate synthetic ones could come in handy. Imagine you do something bad, and all your friends unfriended you. No problem. Facebook will generate scores of fake accounts - for a small fee obviously - and have them all friend you. Maybe even write some computer generated pleasantry on your wall. Voila - you no longer the pariah of the block. And the best thing about synthetic friends - a fact real central banks are well aware of - is that they can be produced in unlimited quantities. Welcome to the Brave New World!

But let's put jokes aside for a moment. That last point actually opens a small window into one possible form of a dystopian future, and it is instructive to take a peek through it.

There is an uncanny parallel between the idea of creating non existent friends and the way our banking system operates, specifically how central banks create "money" out of thin air whenever they think it suits their needs. The parallel may sound preposterous at first glance, but now that Facebook enjoys its tango with the likes of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street darlings, perhaps it is worthy of closer inspection.

We all crave wealth and friendship. It has always been that way. But they should be organic. They should be the product of our hard work and our social engagements. The moment you create wealth or friendship synthetically, their true meaning and value becomes diluted. In other words, making hundreds of Facebook friends is as good barometer of your real social life as printing 2 trillion dollars is of our nation's financial health. Sure, on the surface it may seem like we have just invented an antidote to all bad consequences: if you mess up - financially or socially - a central authority will step in and create brand new dollars or friends to paper over the problem. But if you think about it, something precious would have been lost in such shenanigans. For a world to function properly, there have to be consequences.

Every day we shape our future with a myriad of individual decisions we make. Let's hope that values we create and believe in will be as real as possible. Creating an illusion of wealth or social life by increasing their nominal quantities would be a giant leap in the wrong direction.

Forward to School

Bubble is dead, long live the bubble.

We have barely clambered out from underneath the housing wreck, and a new bubble is already swelling on the financial horizon. After the homeowners' ability to carry debt maxed out, a fresh new demographic is emerging to pick up the slack. Our youth. Faced with sky rocketing college tuition, many students have no choice but to tie their ankles to interest bearing leg irons. After the graduation, when most people would normally start their families, they will be providing an extra cash flow for our starved financiers. Considering that these loans cannot be defaulted on and have the full backing of taxpayers, it is a diabolically clever scheme for generating income.

There has to be a more efficient way how to transfer knowledge to the next generations - one that won't entail mortgaging their future to the hilt. Perhaps, the brightest ones could compete for an array of public stipends and those who wouldn't get them but were willing to study hard could have some other affordable option. Companies, for instance, could offer targeted stipends for students who'd be willing to work for them a stated number of years. Such approach would not only help young people to gain relevant experience without going into unnecessary debt, but it would also steer them into degrees with actual organic demand rather those in Oriental Literature or Comparative Ceramics (those might be fun, but will probably not lead to a sustainable career).

And then there is the cost side of things. Educating young people should not carry the costs of a minor space program. Significant improvements could and should be made in the overall operation of the system. And I do not just mean trimming the bloated administrative structures whose multitudinous offspring are covering the educational vessels like a layer of polyps.

The model where every University and every class has one full time professor lecturing to a semi attentive group of teenagers belongs to the 19th century. Reading the same textbook over and over on 20,000 campuses is a poor use of faculty time. No wonder tuition can cost tens of thousand of dollars. In the 21 century, the introductory lectures, taught by the best experts in the field, should be made centrally and available through Internet and other mass media. Even students at community colleges should have access to those. At the end of the first two years, students would undergo anonymous testing for basic grasp of history, math, sciences, style etc, and after that they would start specializing. In small problem solving seminars the senior professors could mold young minds in much more effective ways.

A system combining widely distributed mass produced lectures from the best sources with subsequent personal attention of human instructors all neatly tucked into a slim administrative wrapper would significantly improve our standing on the global educational scale. It would make all the difference in the world. A whole new ballgame with a whole new student body formed in the process. A convocation of intrepid eagles surfing the gales of curiosity rather than a flock of puzzled geese peeking into the crystal ball.

In our complex and increasingly regulated society much effort (on the governmental level at least) is being spent on designing all kinds of expensive institutions that would help protect the populace from fraud, abuse and predatory behavior. Yet, while spending taxpayers' money left and right we are forgetting one very deep and yet simple truth - school is the best consumer protection agency. Smart and informed people cannot be easily fooled.

We don't need myriad of protective bureaucracies. We need a functional and widely affordable education.


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