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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2013

Privatized Planet

The days of the Wild West were simpler times. You needed land - you looked around, you found some, staked a claim and it was yours. Resources were plentiful and ownership was scarce. These days finding your green meadow by the stream is much harder. Most of the Earth already belongs to some dude most likely living in the penthouse overlooking the Central Park and if you want it, you have to pay top dollar for it.

There was an instance in recent memory which mimicked the condition of the Wild West. I am talking about the privatization of the vast state owned colossus of the former Soviet bloc. I remember one story from the Czech Republic. A man bribed an official responsible for the book-keeping of local state assets and obtained a large chunk of wooded land for essentially a nominal fee. Within a year he sold it to an Austrian sawmill for a nifty profit. In what sense was the land his to sell? Has he ever worked on it?

And how about corrupt African governments that sign over the iron mining rights to multinational corporations for pocket change and a small bakshish on the side. All that while the local people who toil in the in the mines from dusk to dawn get an extra ration of water - if they are lucky. How does the wealth fall into the corporations' lap literally overnight? Well, just for a bout of wheeling and dealing. That seems just a tad too convenient. Don't the natural resources belong to the people who work on the land? How do you get rid of bad stewards who sell out their heirloom?

I think a great example of proper ownership can be found in the animal kingdom. Various species live off the land, they eat its products, they hunt whatever crawls on it, they drink its water, they procreate in its folds. Often they compete with each other, but they don't bite off more than they can chew. I never heard of a tiger who hunted in Malaysia but in addition to its prowling grounds would also buy some land in India just in case. Animals claim as much land they need for life, but not a square inch more. People are different in this regard - even those who have enough to provide for family still want more jewels, more yachts, more lobsters and in doing so take up precious space in which others could develop and exercise their skills. The issue, however, is subtle. On the one hand, this greed enables humankind to progress, but on the other hand it creates unfair playing ground.

Honore de Balzac once said that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. As we have entered the period where conquering new pastures is no longer possible, we have to think about managing the woefully finite resources of the planet to the creative fulfillment of most people, not just the thin top layer of the financial food chain. But we also want to preserve our ability to engage in momentous large scale projects that would require resources and wherewithal beyond the means of an average individual.

The tragedy is that the only reasonable solution to this conundrum - the government - has been proved mighty tricky and inefficient. And enlightened tycoons are as hard to find as enlightened monarchs.

Ying Yang in the sky

On the dark velvet stage of the musical Universe, in the depths criss crossed only by wolf tracks of our hungry imagination, Beethoven and Mahler are eternal beacons of brightly shining stars.

Their musical careers unfolded in very different times, yet they seem connected by a ligature of common patterns. Perching strategically at the turn of their respective centuries, each composer's mind synthesized the musical elements of the outgoing era and pointed to the advances of the incoming one. Beethoven ushered in the 19th century, the era of romanticism with its emphasis on live emotion. Mahler served us the 20th century on a tray full of doubt albeit with an effort to preserve a semblance of coherence in an increasingly fragmented world.

One similarity which I noticed only recently was a strange deviation from the norm they both had offered towards the end of their creative cycle and entrusted to the form they loved most - which in Beethoven's case was piano sonata and in Mahler's symphony. Even though these forms have traditionally 3 and 4 movements respectively, both composers decided to bid farewell to their lifelong series with a 2 movement piece. Beethoven in his Piano Sonata Nr 32 in c minor and Mahler in his 8th symphony in E flat.

(technically you could argue that Mahler's 8th is not his last symphony, but it is the last one in the traditional sense. His last 3 are intellectually so different that it really pays to view them as specimens of a new musical form altogether)

But the parallel between these Masterpieces goes much deeper. Not only have these crowning achievements two movements only, but it seems that they have a similar floor plan. Their dual nature harbors distinctly male and female attributes, as if they were forming a magical ying-yang symbol. In my opinion, in both cases the first movement represents the male element, while the second one forms the complementary female part. Perhaps they wanted to make a statement that union of these contradicting elements is the true building force of all creation. And the tension between them is the primordial polarity which drives all motion on this Earth.

The first movement of Beethovens Last Sonata is forceful and youthfully unapologetic. You would think that the spirit Eroica came to life again. A simple theme invades the keyboard and soon rules supremely over its 7 octaves. The second movement - Arietta - is much more subtle and comes in the form of increasingly involved variations. An initially low keyed theme is instilled into the air and then gently tapped by hands until it blossoms into a geyser of fantasy, springing forth from unfathomable depths of composer's mind.

Mahler's 8th begins with an old hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" and the sheer volume of sound leaves no doubt about the forces Mahler's intellect had to tame. Its overall tenor is very reminiscent of the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Sonata. The first movement end in a mood that is forceful and straightforward. It is the triumph of an emperor. Enter the empress. In the second movement Mahlers casts away the trappings of power and lifts the narration into the rarefied plateau of imagination. Having the advantage of text, Mahler is very clear that it is the "ewig weibliche" (eternal femininity) which draws us higher above the simplistic framework of male mind. I got so used to this movement that it is hard to read Goethe's Faust without hearing Mahler's trumpets at its end.

But we are not finished yet. Beethoven and Mahler share a bit more than the ying-yang of their last oeuvres. After they celebrated the union of male and female elements, they both disappeared into the same mystical realm - into the deep space of human psyche. Into an intricate labyrinth of the soul. Beethoven chose his late quartetts (Nos. 12-16) as the vessel for this journey while Mahler used his last three symphonies (9th, 10th and Das Lied).

What they found there was the Kantian dictum "Das Moralische Gesetz in uns und der gestirnte Himmel uber uns" (the moral law within us and the starry heavens above us). Which in some sense if the male-female duality in a different garb. The eternal ying-yang of human race that you can see above you whenever you raise your eyes and inside you when you humbly lower them.


Three R for 21st Century

The three Rs (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic) are the basic building blocks of elementary education.

I think that the evolution of human race in this century will also be driven and determined by three R's. But these will be slightly different. They'll represent the most urgent problems we'll have to address in order to make it into the next century without blowing ourselves to smithereens.


The first is obvious. As the global village becomes smaller, the religions are faced with the problem of other gods' presence. In the old days, they could simply ignore them. People did not travel much and thus the knowledge of other religions was limited. Our sacred spiritual habits have remained constant and unchallenged by the outside world for much of the recorded history. But nowadays the splendid isolation no longer works. Other Gods invaded our life. They are there - in the newspaper, in the textbook, on the talk show - right next to our God. Their worshippers sit next to you on the subway train. But they don't fit into our canon. They do not guarantee our way of salvation. They make other people do something that you regard as bad. Yet you can't send the extra gods into divine detention. The clash of religions is becoming a global version of "my dad is better than your dad" contest. And we will have to deal with it. In the melting pot of our century, the problems of sharing the theological space will be paramount.

The second one is closely related. In fact, it is the corporal equivalent of the first. People always tend to favor their own kind. It is the old tribal instinct. They regard different race as a different species. As long as we were separated by deep valleys, there was no problem. But different races have different smells, different cultures, different values, different abilities. It is one thing to visit foreign country, and marvel at their strange habits and then come back to your own backyard and heave a momentous sigh of relief that all is well and precisely as it used to be. It is different when those strange creatures occupy your own neighborhood and you have to deal with their laughter, morals, music, hygiene etc. All the little daily fights get exacerbated in the competitive environment in which the finite fruits of Mother Earth need to be shared. How we deal with it will determine whether this century will be largely peaceful, or whether it will continue the pattern of conflicts and hostilities.

The third problem, however, is the most important one. In the complex society, responsibility is a tricky concept. Take financials for instance. In the old days, you would deposit money at the bank. Someone else needed that money, so the bank would check them out, lend them the money and monitor the repayment of the loan. The bank was responsible for the management of the loan. However, in this day and age, if you borrow the money, the bank creates an opaque security out of this debt, chops it into little pieces and stirs those into various financial salads. Now who is responsible for such loan? In such system it is not even clear who owes to whom and how much.

Politicians are not responsible for their decisions because politics became too involved to keep track of individual decisions, people are not responsible for their own conduct because in mammoth urban metropoles the anonymity of the crowd hides all kinds of bad behavior, consumers are not responsible for their mistakes because lawyers egg them on to frivolous lawsuits. The more complex the world is, the easier it is to hide responsibility behind a facade of formal regulation.

The antidote is simplification of our life, education about other beliefs and promotion and encouragement of tolerance. If we don't implement them soon enough, the three Rs will drown us in our good intentions.

Marveling at Cape Canaveral

Gemini was a bridge project between Mercury and Apollo and its objective was to map out the dangers and problems of an extended stay in space. The space race has barely started and every experience gathered along the way could have proved essential for the final push.

Last week, I saw the actual space capsule of the project in the space museum at Cape Canaveral and was amazed at the simplicity and almost fragility of the whole contraption. Compared to the electronic sophistication of today's gadgets, the spacecraft reminded me of old Russian trucks I used to ride in the military service back in Czechoslovakia. It seemed incredibly plain and precarious and yet eventually carried 16 men successfully to the orbit.

Standing face to face with this metallic monument I had to admire the prowess of early astronauts who took such risks in 1960s to get the Moon program started. We knew next to nothing about the space, our computers were overheating underperformers compared with modern day cell phones and the boosters were relatively feeble - but still these heroes climbed the tight quarters and assumed the sardine position to further our understanding of navigating the outer space. Crammed in this ramshackle barrel, they started the slow and painful trek which will eventually allow us to leave our planet and colonize the Solar system.

And that first step is always the most important one.


Of Men and Robots

Why is it that laws these days have to be multi-volume illegible monsters which no mortal person, including the legislators, has time to read let alone understand? I can't imagine how many people have been involved in their creation, but I am sure those people could have built quite a number of pyramids, given half the chance. It seems that hundred years ago, the legal code was shorter and yet people had clearer sense of what was acceptable. Could it be that legal realm is subject to some kind of Laffer curve which tells us that beyond certain level of complexity further specification of behavioral norms only muddies the waters?

Intricate ecosystems of structured societies are molding our lives to the blueprint of acceptable canon and with them comes the daunting army of bureaucracy tasked with developing and maintaining the sacred templates. The homo sapiens has evolved into an overworked clerk with a drizzly rubber stamp hanging pretty damn low at their hip. And maybe there is a reason to it. Here is my suspicion.

Robots are taking over more and more aspects of our production. Not only can they drill wells or vacuum living rooms, but these days they can perform complicated surgeries and make financial decisions. In the meantime, people still need to find gainful employment. They need to find sustenance and take care of their families. Humanity seems to have been taken by surprise and hasn't quite figured how to compensate for the loss of natural jobs. It is clear that large part of the traditional workforce has to be reassigned. I think the paper pushing became a makeshift trench in the battle for new order, a temporary stand in before we figure out how to create opportunities for meaningful work in areas as yet unheard.

I only hope we won't drown in the sea of red tape before we find them.

Biking in Bahamas


Breeze drying its handkerchiefs in spare places between the spokes.

Buzzing insect triangulates the air with its beelines.

Beach following the winding road like a faithful dog.

Broth of youth springs from a chalice of yellow elder.

Blue skies campaigning on the roof of an old Rastafarian church.

Botanical paradise blows at your hair with palms akimbo.

Budget deadline for adrenaline junkies roaring ahead.

Be your own stenography in the declaration of setting sun.



Achilles Heel of Democracy

The following excerpt is usually attributed to Alexander Tytler although there is reasonable doubt that he actually said it. But the quote is so suitable for the introduction of the problem I am going to write about that there is little point in trying to reformulate it:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship"

I think many thinkers have been aware of the conundrum of effective governance over the past few centuries and many of them attempted to devise ingenious mechanisms to resolve it - mostly by restricting suffrage one way or another. Some advocated that the voting rights should be limited to people of considerable wealth, some suggested a voting fee, some preferred to use education or familiarity with the current affairs as the decisive criterion, but at the end of the day every approach seemed to have created some form of discrimination or injustice. Electoral braces are the trickiest piece of political dentistry.

Last week I was reading one of the Czech online newspapers and some sensible soul there suggested a solution which I consider both just and practical, i.e. worthy of implementation.

When you come to the polls you will be given the following choice. Either you get a $20 bill or you get the ballot, but not both. This way only voters who care enough about public affairs to forgo this monetary reward will be given the opportunity to influence them. Note that this does not prevent even the poorest citizens from participating in the election. There is nothing to lose, and there is no restriction on wealth. If you are passionate enough to have your voice heard then twenty bucks shouldn't drag you away from the booth. I would even argue that making such personal sacrifice will in fact make you a better citizen, since you will want to be sure that the person you vote for is worth it.

On the other hand, the voters who don't give a hoot about the issues and toss their vote to whichever name they see displayed at their local intersection might be tempted to take the bait and walk away with the money. And that's the whole point: to dissuade the electoral segment that Tytler's quote warns about from turning the elections into a mindless overspending contest.

And the cost? In the last election, the turnout was about 120 million. If half of them choose the money, it would cost $2.4 billion. That is a pretty reasonable amount, considering that Ben Bernanke prints $85 billion every single month. Especially if it led to more responsible government.

Indian Summer

October is an affectionate month.

The summer is all packed up and ready to leave but comes back one more time to sit down with us and reminisce on the season gone by. It won't say a thing, it just caresses our hands with its warmth and lets its rays percolate through yellowing leaves or reflect on a playful creek. Nostalgia serves its mulled wine. It feels like standing on an extended platform of a rural train station with the steam engine already blowing its foggy envelope. Last embrace and a quick peck on the cheek and off we go.

October is the time when you tickle the sacrificial lamb.

It is still alive and hopping around on a bruised lawn. You watch its little capers, you pet it on its wooly head, but its days are sharply numbered. The show is just about over and the last chords of music are singing their swan song. Or is it just your imagination? It feels like the melodies have gone already but wooden panels and upholstering still bear imprints of their sound waves. And so does your memory. It won't let go easily. The lamb snatches its last clump of grass.

October is the green flash of the setting sun.


Audiatur et altera pars

The debt ceiling debate that had been festering on our airwaves for the past few weeks revealed a bleak reality of DC. The corridors of power brimming with a fully attitudinized Twitter-ready brinkmanship. The state-of-the-art ideological weaponry downgraded to state of the K-mart. The complete lack of constructive dialogue. The congressional warpaths crowded with chest-thumping egos blinded with preexisting bitterness. The media punditry relentlessly egging their respective sides on regardless of consequences. In one sentence: the tone of the contemporary partisan rhetoric became disconcertingly reminiscent of a noxious milieu in a household whose pre-divorce residents had depleted their strategic reserves of tolerance about 6 months ago. Live from the capital - our country is being torn apart right in front of the TV cameras, whether we gauge it through relatively measured statements of top politicians or through visceral reactions of hoi polloi in the comment sections of political blogs.

On occasion I vent my own frustrations in the Huffington Post, mostly because it provides its users with useful community functions of "friending" other commenters and "faving" their posts. In the past few months, while engaging in some of the most heated discussions, I noticed an alarming trend. If you write a one sided rabidly partisan blurt, then no matter how biased and factually wrong it might be, you get tons of solidarity "favs" from the spiritual brethren dangling on the same side of the barricade and eagerly lapping their daily quart of prechewed soundbites. But if you try to write a balanced and well reasoned opinion with concern for the long-term welfare of the country, you barely elicit a raised eyebrow. In a polarized world, people don't relate to thinkers and bridge builders, people relate to soldiers who wear the same color uniforms. Like modern day Viking warriors, who are perfectly capable of killing for a missing hyphen if it comes from the other side of the aisle, we patrol the open seas with long knives held firm and high. We have exited the bay of cooperation and ran smack into a storm of fierce political competition.

I think this belligerence has something to do with the prevalent notion that economic times will get tough again. Adversity has always had polarizing effect. In good times, when the flow of wealth seems to have no limits, people are reasonably sure that they will get "theirs" and are more forgiving towards the machinations of others, even if there is a whiff of corruption or unearned benefits. We simply enjoy our own cornucopia and don't look too intensely into the wheeling and dealing in the neighbor's yard. However, these days it is becoming clearer and clearer that the current course is financially unsustainable and not all promises on future welfare will be honored. With limited coffers, watching the division of global spoils very carefully is a survival skill. As the economy deteriorates, the "us versus them" mentality develops and the notion of "parasites" slowly emerges in the sectarian mindset - whether it is personified by crony capitalists, by welfare queens or by a boogeyman of your choice. The problem is that either group can be thought of as a parasite if you look at it through the right prism. In economy, the truth is somewhat malleable and in most disputes likes to straddle. For instance, the socialists are correct that the income inequality impedes growth, but the capitalists can claim the same about excessive levels of taxation. But no one is willing to step out of the protective cocoon of their own echo chamber to hear the other side of the argument.

In an environment where outreach and conciliatory voices are construed as a sign of weakness and effectively lead to a losing political position no one wants to even think about acknowledging multiple viewpoints. Dissenting opinions are readily suppressed and taking intellectual hostages becomes a norm. Imagine that you publicly admit there is some government waste at the federal level. Guess what - some ultraconservative hawk will immediately swoop down and say - see we told you that government is bad. Full stop. Never mind that such simplification is not the whole truth. Government has many aspects, some beneficial and others less so. Some well run, others less so. Discerning the good from the bad is a step necessary for understanding the problem. Making such fine judgments, however, is much harder than barking out conveniently simplified slogans. Unfortunately, neither side wants to get infected with the prevailing philosophy at the other end of the spectrum and desperately clings to their ideological crutches. When such frantic black and white tribalism conquers the political landscape, how do you find the real truth?

In physics you would make an experiment. If you postulate that stones thrown out from a tower will fall down and your opponent claims that - on the contrary - the stones will soar upward, all you have to do is grab a bunch of pebbles and climb to the top of the nearest tower. But in social sciences (especially in politics and economy), a controlled environment in which to perform an experiment is hard to set up. There are smart people in both camps, so if it was possible to design a scientific procedure in support of the conservative or liberal point of view, it would already have been done and accepted by the other side. But social systems are too complex and riddled with intricate nets of consequences for such simple resolutions. We cannot ascertain or deduce what would have happened if FDR had not offered the New Deal, or how would the Middle East politics evolve had GWB not invaded Iraq. There are way too many variables to control. So in the absence of empirical scrutiny, screaming your side of the story at the top of your lungs is the winning strategy.

Yet an antidote to this destructive policy is as simple as it is ancient. The judges presiding over the squabbles of the Roman Empire had a simple phrase for it: "Audiatur et altera pars" (loosely translated as "let the other party be heard"). And that's all that is needed to steer our ship in the right direction.

Autumn Kaleidoscope

Arts and sciences differ in one interesting aspect. In sharing credits. Or - to put it differently - in the intensity of interactions of its main protagonists.

Science is definitely a team sport. Of necessity. The last do-it-yourself kind of guy died in 1519. His name was Leonardo da Vinci. Scholarly background and technical prerequisites for a publication in a respectable journal can be mind boggling these days. That is why research papers have usually sizable lists of references at the end. Even if you are a certified genius, you still need many intellectual sherpas to conquer the high peaks of contemporary knowledge. A novel idea needs to be properly exposed, presented in sufficient detail, and eventually accepted by the specialized community, and that requires more brainpower than a one man show can provide - others may need to step in and clean up the argument, offer shorter formulas, suggest better notation, find proper context etc. In sciences it is really hard to create your masterpiece from the scratch. Understanding nature is a truly collaborative effort.

Art on the other hand has always been more about capturing the personal view. You may find signs of collaboration there too, but they are few and far between. And whatever little remakes, tributes or variations on someone else's theme you may find, they usually offer only minor tweaks - perhaps changes in orchestration or a few special effect unavailable to movie makers twenty years ago. And that's it. Sometimes I wish authors were more daring and their alterations reached deeper into the plumbing of the given oeuvre. I would love to hear the story of Harry Potter retold by Carl Hiaasen. I would love to see a cross between Groundhog Day and Hamlet. I am curious what would happen if you tossed the Ninth Symphony, Verdi's Requiem and Carmina Burana into the blender and then poured the result over the keys of an old church organ. Or how about if several rock bands took turns in tinkering with say the Bohemian Rhapsody (or any other pop classic), each building upon the successes of previous tinkerers - kind of like scientists do - and adding their own touches to the evolving opus. Would we get something intriguing back or just a tone salad of incongruent and incoherent measures?

Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said: "In the colorful reflection we have what is life". In that regard - art is like a ground of a public park in late October. All covered by colorful leaves that fell down from a tree of someone's imagination. Now if only we could unleash a wild and crazy soul into the midst of it and let it hurl a bunch of leaves into the air and see what unexpected configurations they'd form upon landing. We could even computerize it and get a limitless source of inspiration - kind of like a large virtual kaleidoscope.

But on second thought - at some point we'd probably have grown tired of throwing the same leaves into the air over and over again and we'd start pining for the magic of pure creation. For that is why I think we really have arts. We can always use that extra color that has never been seen before. That colorful reflection off of a piece of technology that wasn't here yesterday.


Born Free (ish)

(Limping Duck Press Agency)

Who wouldn't remember the 1966 British classic "Born Free"? A touching story about the naturalist Joy Adamson and her attempts to rehabilitate the orphaned lioness Elsa. Having been raised in captivity, Elsa lost much of the instincts necessary for the survival in wilderness and became increasingly dependent on human support. Only due to extraordinary efforts and tender loving care of both Adamsons was she eventually able to make the thorny passage from nurture to nature and become a feisty beast again.

When you look at our Congress, you can see a certain parallel. Much of its denizens seem to live in an artificial bubble, sequestered from the perils of normal existence and consequently losing the ability to cope with the vagaries of life outside of the Beltway. If you are wondering what might happen to these poor souls should they ever be forced to leave their taxpayer funded glass house and fend for themselves, worry no more. There is now an organization dedicated to the successful return of our politicians into their natural habitat: the Association of Congressional Rehabilitators and Environmentalists (ACRE). But teaching the politicians the crafts and trades of the Main Street will not be a walk through the rose garden. The new institution just finished their first month of operation and - according to their own testimony - "they have their work cut out for them".

The world of perks is dangerously cushy. Few can resist the addictive allure of exclusive airport lounges, special health care packages, dedicated phone lines, "members only" privileges, automatic pay rises and all the goodies that come with a populous entourage of staffers. In other words, when your list of allowances is longer than a sleeping bag for a grown up anaconda, you may lose a bit of your hunting and gathering skills. The transition from the warm and fuzzy oasis where eager lobbyists cuddle you 24/7 (in some instances 25/8) to the perilous savanna of the private sector teeming with mean bosses and virtually unlimited peer competition is a daunting task, but the team of ACRE experts is fully equipped to prevail.

The rehabilitation process starts off with a field trip to a local orchard to dispel the popularly held bipartisan belief that money grows on trees. Padded forklifts are available to hoist the trainees into the trees and allow for personal inspection of the foliage to make sure that no dollar bills or Treasury bonds are indeed hiding up there. After this eye opening experience, a nutritional therapist takes over in an attempt to wean the lawmakers from consuming too much pork and special interest salami. This may sound a bit harsh but there is nothing an early and persistent vegetarian diet can't accomplish (although we do have to admit here that there have been some rumors that a rogue group of inmates barricaded themselves in the pantry, took the broccoli chef hostage and demanded a two week's supply of real food in small unmarked dumplings).

Much of the allure of the high society lifestyle is derived from a constant shower of unconditional attention. Sudden loss of public exposure can have traumatizing consequences for the registrants. ACRE photographers thus provide numerous photo ops to ease the pain associated with the creeping loss of status. Some posturing and grandstanding is allowed in the first weeks of training, especially during the staged interviews in the nearby community kitchen. To minimize the abstention symptoms further, the ACRE initiative offers liquor coupons, mirror discounts, free membership in Backbiters Anonymous, perk deficit specialists available on the premises and the ground floor sick bay well stacked with cynosure patches that can be worn on the arm in case of emergencies.

The bulk of the ACRE program focuses on acquiring skills necessary for proper functioning in the post-congress environment. All attendees will undergo formal training in parallel parking, opening expired food cans, dealing with automated response systems, speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, operating pencil sharpeners, branding cattle, googling the nearest Dollar Store, writing complaints to their new senator, fixing the jammed copier, generating rational thoughts and so on. Special attention will be paid to that quaint old concept of actually producing something of a value - such as making things other people could use, serving customers and contributing to the general welfare. The crowning achievement of this phase will be the one trick they surely never learned in the Congress - and some perhaps even thought was physically impossible - and that is balancing their checking books. "Living within your means" is not something a person could learn naturally while residing within 100 miles of the Capitol. In fact, in the first few weeks, a couple of fiscally timorous personalities were reported to have fainted at the sight of a balanced budget.

But one day - at long last - that festive moment will finally come. A ramshackle bus will arrive at the doorsteps of the Institute and transport the newly reclawed lions and lionesses outside of the DC area. And God permitting, some will survive there.

God and Gold

We humans are imperfect creations. When no one is watching over us we tend to stray from the right path and succumb to the lure of unbridled chicanery and general corruption. Just reading the Old Testament alone will give you plenty of food for thought. From Sodom and Gomorrah to the Noah's Ark - debauchery, overindulgence and idolatry ran rampant. The image of the hoary Charlton Heston descending from Mt Sinai into the middle of a free-for-all orgy and throwing the stone tablets into the fire in disgust comes to mind. Sadly, not much has changed over the past 3,000 years.

But the strength of our moral fiber is not the only quality in question. When it comes to money, we are not much better off. Ever since the Ancient Rome, the ruling elites invariably fell prey to the possibility of stretching the reach of their currency by inflation. In order to satisfy their growing needs they took the easy path and rather than making hard choices and taking responsibility they just kept chipping away the underlying value. That would tie them over for a bit but the eventual monetary downfall was inevitable. At the end, both currency and ethics followed the same path - which is down and out. Down the drain and out the chimney.

I thought about this inherent vulnerability of our species the other day and realized that the slowly evolving mankind had really needed a pair of crutches to overcome this debilitating weakness. A source of strength that would have supported our growth until such time that our own character would have been sufficiently developed - both in the moral and monetary sense. To put it simply, we needed to brace our soft flesh with a solid steel backbone. With a structure that would be robust, easily understandable and preferably outside of our finite realm so that our cunning fellow evolvees wouldn't feel tempted to tamper with it.

You can probably guess what could constitute such supportive skeleton. In the monetary field it is Gold and in the moral one God. And humanity took full advantage of either. These entities may seem unrelated at first, but on closer inspection they provided us with the same service. They established a firm footing and a relatively incorruptible standard for our many endeavors. With a bit of exaggeration - God became our spiritual gold and gold played the role of our monetary God. They both clearly transcended our transient physical existence and thus built a mechanism that removed the arbitrariness of our chaotic ways and tied the hands of those who would like to serve only their particular interests. In other words, they made sure that our collective actions were measured and guided by something higher than any single one of us.

No, I am not proposing that we should return to the Gold standard at once or that religion is to become mandatory part of our life. I am merely reflecting on our propensity to abuse power and pointing out two support mechanism which - historically speaking - served humanity well. You can think of them as a pair of everlasting horses that we hitched to our ephemeral cart on the way to enlightenment. Are we now strong enough to pull the cart ourselves now? Only time will give the definitive answer to that. But perusing the political blogs tonight, I'd say we are not quite there yet.


Tour de Finance

Lance Armstrong won Tour de France seven times. A feat worthy of emulation for armies of racing enthusiasts all over the world. I bet the French mountains still salute the indisputable general of fast bicycles. However, in January of this year, Armstrong admitted that the doping charges previously filed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency were in fact correct. As a result he was banned from competitive cycling for life. And rightfully so. The sportsmanship and fair play are a big part of the universal appeal of sports, so the purity of athletic achievement is paramount. You win based on your skills, talent and hard work, not based on having a trainer who is well versed in the magic of organic chemistry. Cheaters should not be emulated.

So far so good. But I wish we were as principled in other areas of life as well.

For the fifth year and counting, our too big to fail banks have been on a winning streak. Their trading prowess knows no limits, their profits keep waxing and their executive pay is at the historical high. At the heart of this miracle is the never ending flow of increasingly cheap credit and more specifically the fact that these financial behemoths can borrow money virtually for free due to the extraordinarily accommodative policy of the central bank. Consider this socio-economic travesty from a little guy's perspective. You borrow a cool billion from the Fed at 0%. You invest in virtually risk free Treasuries at 3% and low and behold, you are "making" $30 million a year without having to move a finger. Say bye-bye to your gray cubicle and hello to a hammock gently swaying between a pair of Caribbean palm trees. Wouldn't that be grand?

But not all businesses are created equal. Do you think fisherman in Louisiana have access to such generous uncle? Nope. Do car mechanics in Detroit, doctors in New England or computer wizards in Silicon Valley enjoy such generosity? I do not think so. They make their money the hard way, by earning it. The big banks - while having a legitimate business as well - get their big advantage from simply positioning themselves closest to the splashy monetary trough. The global wealth flows are mighty rivers and skimming them seems easier than ever. This well orchestrated charade is really nothing else than a case of financial doping. Yet instead of shaming these guys, like we did Lance Armstrong, we adulate them and pronounce them heroes of our twilight recovery.

Can you say "double standard"?

Picnic at the Dry Curb


a drooping caravan crosses the dunes of night

camel hoofs are idly popping the bubble wrap
king's gaze sailing through annotated stars
shave the whiskers of the astral cat
push a vat of lard on rusty scales
this is your billboard in the desert
a dollop of beef on the sandy floor
if only you can find its hidden door

swirl like a confused moth
cupcakes and dinosaur broth

bratwursts and nightingales
lipstick that never pales

rhapsody in b sharp flat
laminated omelette

ding dong and click and cluck
statue of a roasted duck

queen is dawdling with her delicate scissors
clipping the nails of a sleeping polar bear
only innocent lies under the frozen surface
scratch her name into the ice of desperation
breath on it with a balmy breeze
this is your royal dose of anti freeze

two hurricanes tiptoe across the river of piano keys


How to Balance the Federal Budget

These days, congressfolks have more functions than a loaded smart phone. Cultivating donor liaisons, dancing with eligible and ineligible lobbyists, rubbing elbows with fellow power brokers, debating the state of federal highways, delivering passionate speeches at annual gatherings of local tent makers, testing Air Force cockpits for flash resistance, meeting the press every other Sunday, avoiding arrest for cliche laundering, managing their private steamy affairs, breathing fire across the aisle during the session and I am not even going into the little chores like kissing babies, naming cute piglets or cutting ribbons.

But when all is said and overdone, their job number one is taking good care of our public affairs and more specifically managing the national finances. In other words, balancing our societal needs against the available funding in such fashion that we can provide the current population with all the necessary services but won't saddle the future generations with undue debt burden. And let's be honest - on this all important front they are usually badly failing. As the debt ceiling debate approaches again, the sprawling circus of the DC politics shifts into the highest gear: the rhetoric heats up, obstructionism runs rampant, threats are flying lower than swallows before a thunder storm and partisan posturing swings wide on either side. All in the name of American taxpayers.

Yet an antidote to this annual burlesque is simple. No congress person receives his or her salary for the given year until the corresponding budget is proposed, finalized and passed. No exceptions. Moreover, for every 1% of the deficit, the legislators' salary gets automatically reduced by 5%. And guess what? You would immediately see a flurry of intense negotiations. They would make compromises no one deemed possible just a few months ago. And best of all, we'd have a sustainable fiscal policy in virtually no time.

Mathematics does not care about ideological squabbles. And the simple fact is that you cannot run deficits larger than your average rate of growth. At least not indefinitely. That is why this issue is paramount for maintaining the long term financial health and for being good stewards of our common wealth. Yes, balancing the budget is a hard job because you have to carefully weigh the consequences of each cut and you have to consider the implications for each segment of the electorate. But that's the point. It is exactly this hard job for which we sent our representatives to DC in the first place. So they better do it right.

Time Machine on Track 4

Life is like a movie set. Find the right props and it catapults you into the most exotic locations. If you get lucky, you can even visit that most coveted destination of all - the past.

This August I was waiting for a train at a small station in the border region of northeast Bohemia as I was returning from a trip to my parents' summerhouse. It was already dark and the train to come was the last one to serve this particular route for the day. We used to call these "Boozer Trains" as they mostly collected local tipplers and carried them home. After I left Czechoslovakia more than 20 years ago, the fleet of the state owned railways has undergone a significant modernization - high speed trains are barreling down the main corridors and even the local branches are served by fast and efficient multiple units. I was fully expecting one of those newfangled marvels of modern transportation, so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the familiar view of a one car train that was popular in the 1970s. Apparently the Czech Railways kept couple of them in service for those late under-utilized connections.

For me, there is a definite sentimental value associated with this type of motor car (technically known as Series 810). The moment I stepped on board it was as if I set foot in a different time. I immediately recognized the layout of its seating configuration, and as we took off the familiar grumbling of its diesel engine fit snugly in my memory keyhole. Even the wailing sounds made by its undercarriage hadn't changed a bit. The rickety soul of this vehicle carried with it a piece of my life. And the passengers looked like they fell out from an old communist retro flick, too. No sign of tablets or smartphones. Just a bunch of local guys who probably rarely made it into my hometown (a regional capital), much less to Prague; a couple of teenagers discussing the standings of some soccer teams that FIFA did not even know existed and a conductor that knew nearly everyone by name and a few by occupation. And all that was nicely pickled in the sweet smell of the meadows blowing their pollen into the summer breeze alongside the river Orlice.

It was an instant trip to the past. The sense of traveling in some surreal dimension was so palpable that I felt I'd heard the public address system informing me that we were about to arrive at the Hogwarts Central Station. Who says time machines don't exist? They are all around us. You just have to recognize them and hop in when they arrive at your feet.


The Case for Dual Banking System

Imagine you have a solid and trustworthy family car - say a Volvo - which you need to cover your basic transportation needs. You go to work in it, you drive your kids to school with it, your wife uses it to bring groceries home, you need it to drive grandpa to the hospital occasionally. But then one day your crazy younger brother borrows the Volvo to make some extra money in a car race and in the process inflicts serious damage to its vital components. After all, sturdy sedans - while reliable - are not well suited to zip along narrow mountain roads at breakneck speeds. But that's not all - to add insult to injury, now your little bro asks you to chip in for the repair costs.

You would not be very happy about it, would you? Well, that is pretty much what happened to our financial system.

We used to have a reliable, if boring, banking system which served us well for several decades since the Great Depression. It extended credit to farmers and producers, it kept our deposits safe, it provided a flow of blood for the real economy. But then one day our crazy younger brothers - the financial wizards of Wall Street - asked us if they could borrow the family car for a generously sponsored rallye.

Our beloved Masters of the Universe figured out they could make tons of extra money if only we'd loan them our car for a risky race through high financial mountains. And for a while they did. Things were rolling smoothly, markets were climbing like Reinhold Messner on steroids, fees and profits reached obscene levels and our old beaten car was suddenly worth much more than a boring trip to the office and back. But then something went terribly wrong, our reliable Volvo - or its financial equivalent - went into a skid and it makes lots of funny noises ever since.

The business of banking is based on loans. That provides a steady stream of predictable income. But being merely rich is never the option on Wall Street and so over the years we have got all kinds of insurance vehicles, foreign exchange swaps, leveraged hedge instruments and other exotic contrivances. No one really understands how they work, but who cares. As long as you hear that magic "cha-ching", all is well. Until one day you wake up in the pool of tears. And the worst part is we are the ones who have to mop up the mess this speculative spree created. "Privatize the gains and socialize the losses" - that's how this cookie crumbles. In other words, they kept all the prize money they won when the going was good, but now that the car no longer works, we have to drive it to the garage and pay for fixing it. What a great deal. If you are a high financier that is.

We clearly need two cars. One safe and boring for the family use and one sporty and spiffy for our wild younger brother. The first one will represent the old fashioned banking as we know it and it will be fully covered by our central bank, which effectively means by all taxpayers. The other one will be all theirs - engine, hood and blinker. Chase away boys. Do as you wish. If you can find a great opportunity and get a few extra percent of return, go right ahead. If you get tons of private investors plowing their money into your well thought out charades - good for you. Just don't come crying back to us when the roulette wheel does not turn your way.

Why? Because we need a stable monetary environment for education, for sickness, for infrastructure, for research and for actual investing. We can't commit that money to your Ponzi schemes and high stakes gambling just because you like to live in the fast lane.

We used to have such protection. It was called the Glass Steagall Act. But thanks to Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and other high priests of deregulation, it was dismantled at the end of the last millenium. All in the name of brighter future and prosperity. Well, that bright future lost its way somewhere so I guess it's time to reinstate this wall and make it stronger than ever. The wall that will split our garage into two separate booths, just to make sure that our younger brother won't mistakenly trash the old family car.

Menu as an Algebra Problem

An inn is not a place where most people would wield their high level mathematical skills.

Unless the inn keeper has a devious mathematical mind, in which case you better brush up on your trigonometry before ordering the main course. When I was wandering in obscure corners of the Czech Republic this summer, I happened upon a far flung restaurant whose daily specials menu would make you feel very grateful for that little calculator conveniently imbedded in your smart phone.

Consider this sampler (all prices in Czech Koruna = Kc):

Fried Cheese: Sqrt(12100)
Cabbage Soup: 1280-300+20-970
Sausage: 6.71^2
Pancakes: Sqrt(2)/2 = sin(x) (where x in degrees is the price you pay)
Potato pancakes: (2^2+2)*4
Goulash: 8245/97

For connoisseurs of spherical geometry, I will add that this gem can be located at latitude: 49 degrees 49 minutes and 41.53 seconds North and longitude: 16 degrees 8 minutes and 58.122 seconds East. Regular mortals will find it in a small village of Vranice, which is one of the entry points into a low exposure natural park called "Toulovcovy Mastale", known mostly for its dreamy woods, deep ravines and bizarre rock formations from cretaceous limestone. The (partly open air) pub is called "Na verande U Toulovce", and you can get there via a short hike from Bor u Skutce, which in turn is not very far from Nove Hrady (with a nicely renovated castle) and Litomysl (the town where composer Bedrich Smetana was born). You should be able to locate those on any reasonable map of the Czech Republic.

Bon appetite! Or shall I say Bon Arithmetique?


Change I Could Believe In

Every once in a blue moon, that ginormously greasy pork factory that we fondly call Washington, DC produces a hearty meal that even your grandma would approve of. All it takes is for one of our beloved sausage makers to skillfully canoe across the alphabet soup of special interests and come up with an idea whose power and simplicity will shine through the rain of bacon like a beacon.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently suggested that Federal student loans be tied to the same rate which big banks receive from the Federal Reserve. Amid multi-thousand page legislative monsters, this is a truly inspired idea. The intuitive social justice inherent in her simple proposal as well as its many practical implications form the kind of cocktail that isn't served very often in this town. Why should our monetary policy favor only one segment of our society - bankers? There is more to the organically grown economy than its bankrolling logistics. Students are its future skeleton, flesh and blood - all in one body. Yes, supporting them will be a form of subsidy, but one that is well placed and well thought out. Plus it's not like we are throwing the money away. They will still have to pay it back. We'll just give them more favorable conditions.

Even as an investment it makes perfect sense. A nation's youth is its most precious asset. Why would we coddle the sinful financial sector with artificially low rates while the aspiring doctors, scientists and engineers are stuck with nearly usurious rates? Why would we punish the next generation for wanting to become intelligent and productive? Educated nation should be our long term goal anyway. One could argue that a degree in French history won't add up as much to the GDP as a degree in electrical engineering and to some extent it is true. But even a person with a degree in humanities brings many values to the table, not the least of which is overall elevation of the political culture. Simply put: educations enlightens and softens the rough edges, regardless of the major.

One might also argue that the easy loans would exacerbate the already inflated college costs. True as well. But we already have bubbles in virtually all markets and nobody seems to care. Not to mention that those costs can easily be reduced. And last but not least, Warren's proposal does not say the college loan rates should be artificially low. She just says that they should be on par with the loans we are giving to banks. It's only fair. If I had a say in this business, I would much rather support teachers and professors, because their work represents a definite social contribution. Speculating in the commodity markets less so.

Quality schooling is an important factor in launching a successful professional career. Consequently, easier access to education for all will strengthen the middle class and ameliorate the increasingly lopsided wealth distribution. By extension, one can even hope that such reform and the associated boost in common societal wealth will decrease racial and religious tensions; that the proverbial tide will truly lift all the boats. That would be the change I could believe in.

Now if only we had politicians visionary enough to implement it.

Quantum Music

Quantum mechanics was born out of a sheer mystery. If electrons are revolving around the nuclei, they must be continuously radiating their energy out (like all charged particles), slowing down in the process and eventually fall into the atomic kernel. But they don't. It was only after Max Planck postulated that particles can lose their energy only in discrete quantities (called quanta), an intriguing possibility for stable orbits appeared. After some heavy duty math lifting was applied, it turned out that if electrons move at a very specific energy levels, they do not have to lose their momentum at all. They just keep circling around the nucleus, never losing a single photon, never falling into the central abyss.

I think that music is subject to a similar phenomenon. Most musical pieces become duller and grayer with every new spin on the turntable (or an iPod). They may seem like a feast for your disbelieving ears when you hear them the first time - a sure hit in the making - but as time goes on they slowly lose their luster and eventually fall into the well deserved oblivion. Regardless of a genre, author or an interpret. But every now and then you come across a rare composition which breaks all the classical rules and enters the mysterious quantum state in which it can - at least in principle - live forever. You can play it day in and day out and its wings never tire. Like resonances, these tunes of distinction strike the right ratio of your internal wavelengths and out comes the musical equivalent of the Elixir of Youth.

Which compositions enter this fabled state is, of course, highly subjective. One man's evergreen is another man's flash for the trash. The elusive quantum orbits are hard wired differently in each mind. Sometimes I am actually surprised what makes the cut in my own. The other day I was driving back from a soccer game down in DC and my car stereo starting crooning an old Abba song titled "Me and I". Despite the world's infatuation with Dancing Queen and the likes, this little known late opus was always my Abba favorite. As the song cantered its lighthearted gallop to my eardrums, I realized that over the 20 years since I have known it, it hasn't lost a single bit of its spunk. It was as fresh as the first green maple leaves I see outside of my window every Spring. And I am pretty sure it will stay that way.


Quo Vadis, America?

Fourth of July.

It's that time of the year when the sky blooms with sea anemonies of colorful sparks and the smell of hot dogs overpowers any resolution to wiggle back into last year's pants. This is a hallowed night which presents a great opportunity to pause and ponder the direction in which this young country is going.

Naturally, opinions on that vary greatly.

Many on the right are worried that the country is lurching to the left. The commentators are calling Obama a socialist, the economists are wringing their hands at every bit of expenditure, pointing to the imminent death of the dollar and the shock jocks are dusting off the specter of U.S.S.R and promptly rebranding the country's abbreviation into a sinister sounding U.S.S.A. But they are all way off the mark. I grew up in the Soviet bloc and I can tell you that we are not a socialist country any more than North Korea is a thriving democracy. By historical standards Obama maneuvers in the center-right space, so if we are to fret about any extremist labels at all, it should probably be "fascism". After all, if we had socialism, the wealth gap would be narrowing, not widening. However, despite the lack of signs that we are tacking to the left, there are certain parallels with the former Soviet Union that warrant our attention. Over the past 20 years that I have lived here, these parallels have grown more visible and should be closely monitored by the politicians, by the punditry and above all by the public.

Here they are:

a. militarization of economy: it is not a secret that overextended military and increased economic emphasis on arms and weaponry production is what did the Soviet Union in. We keep shedding whatever consumer oriented production we still have and larger and larger share of our GDP goes to the (unproductive) military complex. The fact that we alone account for 40% of the world's military budget tells you most of the story. The warning of President Eisenhower is half forgotten and military industrial complex is stronger than ever.

b. erosion of civil liberties: the process that started with the Patriot Act in the atmosphere of post-9/11 shock has taken life of its own and as the time goes on, its intrusive scope is waxing, not waning. As the recent NSA revelations show, one by one our liberties are being undermined and the freedom to pursue happiness as we see fit is becoming lost in the labyrinth of laws, regulations and privacy intrusions. The tightly bound police state that the Soviet Union was infamous for is hardly an example to emulate and certainly not a recipe for developing a dynamic and thriving society. Intolerance breeds suspicions which in turn limit the overall mobility of individual citizens as different segments of the society feel shortchanged and crawl into their defensive shells.

c. financial centralization: a system as complex as the national economy needs to be controlled by a robust and decentralized network of thousands of local decision makers, all armed with boots on the ground, equipped with streams of real life data and controlled by self-adjusting feedback loops. A handful of wise men has little chance to appreciate all the details and interconnections of the whole system, much less make decisions beneficial to it. And it matters little whether the building in which they ply their wisdom is owned by a central bank or by a politburo of the communist party. The aftermath of the global financial crisis diverted enormous power into the corridors of the former. The central bankers may think they got all the answers, but at the end they cannot plan the future any better than the old Soviet style apparatchiks could. The hamfisted money printing is distorting interest rates, inflating prices of commodities, stifling markets' ability to correctly choose capital allocations and, in general, turning our economy into a centrally planned morass.

Each of these trends poses a clear and present danger. For now, we are slowly drifting in the wrong direction and fortunately there is no reason to panic yet. We are reasonably far away from the rocks and we have one big advantage: a strong tradition in democracy. While Russians were used to living under tzars for centuries - and that is a lot to saddle the national psyche with - America was built on the spirit of defiance and individual rights. The threshold for totalitarian pain is much thinner in this country. And that gives me hope that the only existential question the fireworks in the future will bring about is whether we should go for that extra hot dog.


People who come close to near death experience often recall images of a long dark tunnel with a white light at the end. But are those images real? What if the brain, in a desperate effort to cope with a previously unknown situation, frantically fires up random synaptic connections in order to find a way out from what it must perceive as an emerging emergency. Maybe it tries to open some sort of previously untapped panic room possibly hidden in the deep recesses of the cranium. We know that even under normal conditions our brain has a tremendous potential to create its own illusions. After all, that is what dreaming is all about. It is thus entirely imaginable that in the case of a looming catastrophe, our intellect is capable of mobilizing much larger banks of such resources.

Many teachings and philosophies (especially those of Eastern provenience) ask you to liberate yourself from the objective reality and seek solace in the vast expanses of your inner space. In it you can create your own little Universe and enjoy the streaming happiness on your own terms. The interior may seem black and empty at first, but once your eyes get used to the twilight zone luminosity, you may discover a complex non-material world which taps directly into your brain's spare capacity. That is basically what Nirvana is - an asylum for jaded senses. No wonder that many gurus advocate immersing yourself in the spiritual self discovery in order to reclaim these deeper layers of your being.

I can see their point, too. Molding the cacophony of sensory inputs into a coherent image is an uphill battle. It feels like composing a giant jigsaw puzzle while your peers - your friends, your relatives, your roommates, your coworkers - keep messing with the pieces on your table. It is so much more convenient to just shut the outside door and succumb to the vertigo of your spiraling mind - or slightly worse - to sniff some nasty chemical and stone yourself beyond the Kingdom Come. But if focusing our energies into the unfathomable depths of our soul is the answer then why not give up on improving this world altogether? Well, if you think of it, there would be global consequences. If we all thought that way, the world as we know it would not really be here. We would never have invented the wheel and the printing press, we would not have built pyramids and the Panama canal, we would not have time to design an electric bulb or a smart phone. We'd all be smoking our little weeds somewhere in the Neanderthal Valley, floating contentedly on cloud nine and eating grubs. Literally.

I think life is a constant struggle between the perfect inner and imperfect outer reality. Every day you have to get up and make a choice where you want to draw the separating line. Do you navigate your anxiety ridden raft through white waters of assorted social regulations, often under unfavorable conditions, or do you steer it onto the smooth surface of an underground lake on which you are the supreme ruler and where you can live free of inferior desires and petty greeds. In this mortal's opinion, it is all about the balance. On the one hand, we need our inner world as a safe haven we can return to if it rains too hard on the outside. On the other hand, we should acknowledge the existence of that pesky outer reality which we share with others and use it as a vehicle to improve this little planet. And maybe build bigger and better pyramids while at it.

But what do I know? It is entirely possible that we don't even see the true reality anyway. What if our reality is but a projection? Kind of like a silhouette of an oriental dancer swaying on a whitewashed tavern wall. However accurate the projection is, it still does not accurately portray all the attributes of the real world, or even all the relevant entities acting in it. Despite the successes of modern sciences in explaining our world, it may still be just a shadow on the wall, a partial image whose full meaning is hidden from us. Imagine dogs were trying to figure out the purpose of a Superbowl. They have all the sensory input we have (in the olfactory department they probably have more) and yet watching the game would have to be utterly confusing experience to them.

We think of ourselves as masters of the Universe, but in the end we may just be dogs staring at the Superbowl. Yeah - it is tough to be a human trying to figure out what on Earth is happening out there. Especially when all we can see is a vague spray of light tiptoeing into the dark cave of our ignorance.



71 years ago, on June 10, 1942, Nazi troops surrounded the village of Lidice and assumed positions to carry out one of the worst massacres on the Czech soil. Billed as an exemplary punishment for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, and justified by a flimsy pretext of alleged harboring of the conspirators and their collaborators, scores of the Ordnungspolizei members in polished boots marched into the village and erased it from the surface of the Earth literally within hours. Men were summarily executed behind one of the barns, houses were burned to the ground and women and children were hustled into buses and sent into concentration camps from which only a handful returned.

Making a movie based on a crime against humanity is not an easy task. Trauma kisses slowly. It can take generations for a nation to extricate its judgment from the quagmire of open wounds. The chronicler of this act of vengeance might easily be tempted to delve into a moralizing etude culminating in a vindictive stampede of high horses. Or slip into a black and white storm of available trivia, unleashing a dry dream of every war historian. The 2011 movie of director Petr Nikolaev simply titled "Lidice" managed to avoid all the obvious pitfalls and delivered a straightforward, but compelling testament to the fragility of our social order. In the process, it also gently reminded us that we are connected to the magma of human existence through our own scars. Whether we like it or not.

Nikolaev serves his dish raw. His narrative is sober, unretouched, bitter, moving, grievous, unsettling, harsh, scathing, but also observant and understanding. Its central message is well supported by the subtly abrasive acting of the main protagonist Karel Roden. The low key tone and seemingly reluctant performance accentuates movie's dark tone better than any grandiose gesture. A mosaic of small and large slowly unfolds in front of our eyes - the trite and the profound melting together under the welding arc of the pan-european delirium, the futility and the sorrow, the weakness of flesh conjoined with the strength of character, the innards of conscience that were pecked out by the war and left a hollow cavity gaping under the lid of marble discipline. All you now need is a handkerchief for the blushing God. At the end of the movie you can almost hear His hot tears dripping on frozen oceans of forgiveness.

This film does not have a happy end. Icing sugar is not a recommended ingredient in movies dealing with Nazi atrocities. And that is just as well. Exuberant fireworks would not fit the bleak nature of the subject. Especially considering that for the Czechs, the end of the war wasn't really a joyous deliverance; it was merely a transit from the oppressive Third Reich straight into the hell of a Stalinist Empire. Hardly a cause for celebration. So the movie ends with an unresolved chord - a hesitant promise of continuance. A reminder that however painful the events were, we need to carry them in our memory lest we stray away on our long way from primates to decent human beings.

If the men and women from Lidice watched the movie from their high cloud, I think they would silently approve. They would appreciate that someone else felt their sense of anguish and helplessness and conveyed it onto the silver screen so faithfully. And after so many decades, they could even feel a bit of a closure. A soft touch of human hand on their shoulders. Barely perceptible - like flecks of a shredded mirror drizzling from the sky.

Country Life

Lyrics to one of the older Genesis songs contains the following piece of wisdom:

"I'd rather trust a countryman than a townman,
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can,
He'll smile through his guard,
Survival trains hard"

I think the central observation in this verse is that great outdoors require a different kind of man, a different kind of character and a different survival mode. In the countryside, if you need more food, you negotiate directly with Mother Nature, which is uncompromising, but fair. In other words: if you have more mouths to fill, you add extra land to till. Case closed. In the city, however, you have to deal with your fellow denizens and if you want to make more money - you need to outfox competitors. That hones a slightly twisted set of survival skills. Shredding credit card applications is a different experience than shredding beef.

The simplicity inherent in the country life also engenders certain moral clarity. That is probably why I enjoy talking to farmers more than to any other professional group. Out there in cornfields, there is no fast track, no inside game, no commercial jingle, no illicit bribery, no price fixing. Your sweat is your credit. Farmers know what labor is really worth and their general views are Earthy - which is just my little code word for pragmatic, rational and straightforward. Living off the soil creates a deeply rooted and intuitive system of values. You get out what you put in.

But there is more allure to the countryside than the more transparent form of subsistence. People who work off of the soil have one more advantage. They see more of the color which is like amniotic fluid for our fragile psyche - the color of the life itself: green. From mountain meadows to wheat patches, from the plush carpet of grasslands to the puffy hairdo of the forest foliage, its chlorophyll based hues soothe and calm our jaded existence. When you enter a woods clearing and see the crisp sprinkled light dancing among the green coppice you can sense your own recharging light go on. It is almost as if your soul just got hit with a second hand photosynthesis. Everything around you grows and you grow with it.

When we moved en masse to cities in search for an easier life, we gave up our instinctive sense of growing. Concrete structures around us don't grow - they stay put. Asphalted streets don't respire - they drain (provided that the sewage system works). The gray and beige tones of most man made structures is a poor substitute for green. And worst of all, we lost our link to land, and with it a natural gauge for calibrating our values.

Sometimes I cannot help thinking about a social experiment in which we'd institutionalize some sort of farm-based summer jobs for all young people at the onset of their productive life. Kind of like a mandatory military service, except we wouldn't ask our youngsters to carry arms, rather we'd invite them to carry rakes and pitchforks and work on the land for some period of time, say 3-6 months. They could upkeep a new forest, make hay on a meadow, fish on an open sea or work in the cotton fields. Learning first hand that the world is growing and breathing would bring fresh perspective to those who might otherwise lose it in the micro-cosmos of their highly specialized professions. Imagine that all our politicians would go through this kind of service. I bet the trust in Congress would shoot up immediately. Even wizards of Wall Street and Silicon Valley could deepen their sense of belonging to a larger entity. Heck, now that I think of it, it might be a worthy experience for all of us. Maybe we could repeat it every 10-15 years. It would be like a driver's license renewal. A periodic extension of our personal contract with Mother Nature.

In return we'd all get an extra supply of organic produce and much healthier society to boot.

Both physically and mentally.


Res Publica

Politics is the greatest theater known to man. There is no other area of human activity where appearances, signals and gestures plays such cardinal role. And for a good reason. If you are in a position where you have to heed multiple and often contradictory requests from varied population segments, you better be a certified master of smoke and mirrors.

We all have our views about how the society should take care of its public needs. But rather than using baseball bats as a means of persuasion, we have devised a grandiose transmission mechanism for the power generated by people's mercurial and often finicky wants - the political system. That venerable if byzantine structure in which human representatives mull over political pressures (people's preferences about the directions which the society at large should follow), then ponder the consequences, set up priorities and, finally, create and maintain an apparatus to enforce the outcomes.

Resolving the political pressures into actionable pieces of legislature is not an easy task and each representatives handles it differently. The inherent diversity of motivational factors is one reason why game theory is not easily applicable to politics. Every player has a custom made "cost function". As far as I can see, the incentives for public servants - and with them the tactics and strategy - can come from at least three sources. The first one rests in a straightforward execution of what the electorate wants. In this variant, a politician is but a giant cog in the implementation of the perceived public will. The second group shamelessly propagate their own agenda and the agenda of those that fill their campaign coffers. They are in it for the money and power. Rhetorical skills and connections are assets; spine, character and personal integrity big liabilities. Finally - there is a small group of individuals I would describe as visionaries - people who act on behalf of common good. They are the true statesmen who can see into the future and lead the nation in the direction of long term prosperity. Needless to say that this group is the rarest of them all.

Such categorization is an oversimplification though. In real life, politicians are amalgamation of the three prototypes and their motives evolve over time. Many dreamers have no choice but to become pragmatists if they are to survive in the brutally competitive system. And the system itself evolves in time too. It morphs, it reacts, it gets eroded or rebuilt, and sometimes it crumbles completely. Once upon a time, in the Greeko-Roman cradle of our civilization, a democratic system of governance was conceived and honed, but like all magnificent ideas, the efficiency of the system fell prey to human nature. The daily wheelings and dealings of the many constituent parts eventually undermined the noble design of Plato and Cicero and the meaning of large words like liberty, honor, freedom or justice was frittered away in the labyrinth of palace intrigue. One personal squabble at a time. Call it death by thousand cuts if you will. We are mere mortals and the ability to push buttons of other mortals and control their livelihoods at the same time just seems too much to resist for some of us.

These days politics is a fine balancing act. For every imaginable move, there are many who are pleased and many who are not. To complicate things further every potential political issue yields different set of winners and losers. Navigating such environment is like playing multidimensional chess game in which the rules of the game are created on the spot by spectators. Or by sponsors - if you are of a more cynical disposition. Survival under these conditions can be an extremely tricky business. You have to find the right balance of alliances and enmities for your goals and keep in mind that every new alliance will create some enemies and vice versa. You have to position yourself correctly for the prevailing winds and learn how to pin unpopular policies on your opponents even if you directly benefit from them. And above all, keep in mind that short term pain for a long term gain may be a death sentence for your political career. So kicking the can successfully down the road - in the hope that the eventual catastrophe will fall onto someone else's shoulders - should definitely be in your toolbox.

In an ideal world, a slim and efficient government with an eye on a sustainable growth would be the desired outcome of this game. But we don't live in an ideal world. The unrelenting barrage of recent revelations coming from the DC is a bitter testimony to that: the IRS targeting allegations, the NSA surveillance scandal, the AP monitoring rumors, the fast and furious fiasco... Our national affairs seem to be managed by an overgrown multiply redundant organization which spies on us, uses public funds to slander and besmirch their political opponents, bails out selected private businesses, and puts regulators in bed with those they are supposed to regulate. The founding fathers would probably fidget nervously if they had to watch the Sunday morning shows. In lieu of public servants, we got a constantly bickering hypo allergic crowd, looking for a slightest excuse to rain brimstone and fire at those who hold an opposing view. The engine of democracy which should be roaring with confidence barely sputters.

So that's where we are. Governing the society effectively is indeed trickier than herding an army of cats with multiple personalities. Let's hope we get the plumbing of checks and balances right some day. In the absence of enlightened monarchs, we don't really have much choice.

Poetic Evolution

Evolution is a convincing force. The combination of random perturbation and natural selection does not seem like much of a winner, but give it a couple of Pleistocenes and it can work miracles. I think most of its magic comes from the fact that randomness can eventually produce structures that no designer would ever think of. But if the right structures are to persist, they need the second component - the environment which fosters and rewards survival skills. The environment in which the superior quality gives evolutionary advantage. In order to better see what's going on under the hood here, let's take a look at poetry - an area not usually associated with being a testing ground for Darwinian theories.

A poet is a person who can look up at the night sky and hear the rustling of wet diamonds. But even a person of such industrious imagination can use a little boost from a verbal lottery. In this demonstration, I take a snippet of the classical poem by Robert Frost (titled "A Late Walk") and then choose one word from each line and replace it with an equivalent (same part-of-speech tag) randomly drawn from the WordNet databank. Instead of DNA mutation I'll swap words and instead of letting the fittest combinations survive, I'll apply my aesthetic judgment.

Here is the original:

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to draw 5 words for each highlighted position and then choose the one that tickles my fancy most successfully. After all, that's how nature functions as well. It does not immediately accept the first or second choice. Only the variations that can fight for themselves will make it onto the next generation.

So here we go:

A tree beside the maze stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered unborn,
Roasted, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly scalding down.

There. Can you sense the extra tension, a hint of mystery perhaps? What poet in their right mind would "roast" their thoughts? In fact, I do not know many poets who would do such horrible thing in their left mind. And yet, the new words invite you to enter realms hitherto unexplored. Allowing occasional flukes can probe different dimensions and every now and then such disruption of conformity creates an opening that remains visible long enough for a new species of artistic thought to enter your inner world. You will be surprised what kind of creatures show up - here is one of the discarded candidates for instance: "Comes softly gift-wrapping down". It does have a certain dada allure, doesn't it?

Granted, I took an already established poem, but you could just as well start with a paragraph from a boring humidifier manual and slowly convert the mundane prose into a sparkling poetry - one word at a time. And that is the point. Stochastic evolution is a mechanism that can create beauty and order where none existed before and that can come up with colors, shapes and textures that no human would possibly think of. One gene at a time, mother nature can draw a blueprint for more and more elaborate organisms. Especially if allowed to operate on geological time scales. If you don't believe me, delve into the jungle near you, roam around for a bit and behold the fruits of fortuity. The cathedral of life reared upon the foundation of long term statistics. Pretty amazing if you ask me.

Oh, and one more thing. If you happen upon a pensive monkey hanging out on a tree limb, do not disturb it. It might be a poet in evolution.


Samurai of Deficit

Debt is a preening shadow of wealth and the whole financial world now lurks in it. Not to the same degree though.

If you think that the epicenter of the current fiscal woes lies in the Southern Europe, think again. PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) may be hogging the spotlight for now, but no country is deeper in hock than Japan. When scrutinizing their public balance sheets you better wear a pair of safety goggles and extra length raincoat. Never having fully recovered from the aftermath of the Nikkei crash in early nineties, and recently hit with the double whammy of the global financial crisis and devastating earthquake, the Land of the Rising Sun amassed public debt in excess of 230% of GDP, which easily dwarfs the figures of even the most profligate budgetary sinners in the Mediterranean - compare that to 160% for Greece or 130% for Italy for instance.

Whether the developed economies can grow out of this predicament without opening too many cans of worms has been the subject of much debate. And truth be told, the jury is still out on this one since in economy anything can happen at any time under any circumstances. Often contrary to the opinions of the best experts in the field. Unlike say physicists, economists can't really make replicable experiments to verify or reject their wild theories. For instance if you want to make an analogy between our situation and post-war world, how do you match all the contradicting factors and relevant macro-economic conditions? You can't. So we just try to seek the truth in debates. And when it comes to deficits, they can be pretty heated. Some say we should grow out of our obligations, like we did in 1950s when our GDP expanded so fast that the proportion of debt became negligible; others would argue that we should rip the band aid off quickly like we did in 1922 when the country went through a quick depression only to emerge roaring and victorious on the other side. However, in the absence of a solid experimental lab it is hard to know which path we should follow or what the unforeseen consequences of massive money printing might be. Teasing the spirits of inflation out of their slumber is kind of like playing with matches in a dynamite factory. You may get much more than you bargained for. Or much less. But no matter what camp you belong to, you would be well advised to pay close attention to what is happening in Tokyo, because whatever ghosts the developed world faces, Japan faces them twice.

After sailing against deflationary headwinds for two decades, its new prime minister Shinzo Abe decided to perform a financial liposuction on the public debt and try to transform the swollen sumo wrestler of non-performing assets into a dynamic gymnast of the regional growth engine. To accomplish a task of this magnitude will of course require some pretty serious out of the box thinking. While up to this point in time the Bank of Japan has been largely conservative, the new governor Haruhiko Kuroda has embarked on unprecedented bout of "easing" (which is a newspeak for "money printing"). And the first results are mildly shocking - to put it diplomatically. Yen has plummeted some 30% and faces a possibility of becoming an illegal tender in the global polite society. Nikkei has almost doubled over the past half years, but like an inexperienced mountain climber became a bit dizzy of late and started wobbling dangerously close to the cliff. And government bonds are acting up, too. After an initial plunge, their yields have shot up and displayed a degree of volatility that halted the corresponding exchanges several times. Such neurotic behavior made them less predictable than a six pack of wild tanukis on a raw vegan diet. And no one knows what kind of sushi will be served next week. Whatever the immediate future holds, it is becoming clear that Japan will be the economic story of 2013 and the whole investing world is fishing in the Asian news streams with baited breath.

Japan is the canary in the Keynesian coal mine. If Kuroda can successfully plug the hole in the dyke without opening five more elsewhere, it will be a signal that the whole system is more robust than we thought and that we can print our money all the way to the monetary Nirvana without destroying its value. However, if adding an extra floor to the existing house of cards collapses the whole structure, it is game over. And not only in the Land of the Rising Interest Rates. Globally.

Music as a Form of Energy

Exhibit A

I think first time I realized that music is energy was when I was a teenager and watched a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Carlo Maria Giulini. Most conductors gesticulate furiously during the performance. They direct, they prod, they convey emotion and, of course, they set the pace. Not so Giulini. His body language was subdued and sparse. He was playing with an orchestra that knew him well so no histrionics were necessary. When the theme of Joy in the last movement percolated into the full orchestration - a place where most Maestros go flat out mercurial - Giulini just raised both of his hands like a sorcerer and kept them up for the duration of the passage, a whole minute at least, just letting the music flow through the V-shaped opening he created. It was like optical lens for some mighty yet invisible force. I could almost see the stream of its field lines rushing through that gap. At that moment, the whole concert hall turned into an electric lake which had many tributaries, but only one exit - through the narrow channel over Giulini's head.

Exhibit B

Talk is one of the lesser known albums by Yes, my favorite rock band. But it has a small jewel in it. The last number (Endless Dream) has a short instrumental overture and that 3 minute piece is pure magic. Its charm rests in a strange way in which it generates its momentum. See, in our Universe being at rest is the default mode for things. Normally you have to spend energy to get things going. You have to generate it, you have to push the pedal to the medal, and that often makes you look awkward - panting, sweating, trying too hard, gasping for breath and in general unappealing. But in this overture, it appears that motion is the natural state of affairs and the way to accelerate it further is not by stepping on the gas pedal with your eyes bulging and fingers gnashed into the steering wheel, but rather by releasing the brake pedal with a casual elegance of a worldly lady. In fact, at the beginning as the music gradually revs up you can almost hear the tension of the engaged brake pedal. And then it happens. Release it - and off you go - straight into a parallel Universe. With an unbearable lightness of speeding.

Exhibit C

I have heard several recordings of Mitch Leigh's classical musical Man of La Mancha. I saw several men in the leading role of Don Quijote, some good, some adequate. But all of their heroic efforts were completely blown out of the water some 15 years ago, when I first saw the rendering of Linda Eder on PBS. And yes, that is a female name. The level of knee bending energy she projected into her singing was in a league of its own. None of the other Don Quijotes came close. To put them in the same sentence with Eder would be like comparing Sunday afternoon paddling on a local fish pond with riding down a class 8 Himalayan rapids. But I always found it ironic that it had to be woman who unleashed all the elements dormant in this song. Once in a while I still watch her tour-de-force on you tube and am stunned every time. At times it looks like she has to do dig her heels deep into the floor so she can better withstand the gale force winds gushing through her vocal cords. There she is - pacing up and down the stage like a hungry tigress, tossing her mane around, scouting the audience for prey and taking absolutely no prisoners. Every move of hers is shaped by the flow of music. In this well mounted resonance, she and Don Quijote emerge as one. And onward to glory they go.

Exhibit D

When I first heard a piece called Magnum Opus by Kansas (American progressive band popular in 1970s and 1980s) I thought "these guys must have lost it". The composition takes about 8 minutes, most of which are spent on hurling ear pulling dissonances in your general way. Quite a jarring experience for most audiences: up the keyboard, down the keyboard, up the keyboard and down again - torn melodies and mangled harmony fly all over the place. You feel like sitting in an experimental chair of a mad scientist. You wanna scream and pull your hair out and run away in despair and all of the above. Until almost at the end a majestic spark suddenly jolts the electrodes and in one fell swoop gives meaning to the whole etude. The seven minute ordeal has been but a preparation for that one moment. It's not even a tune or a phrase, it's just a massive burst of harmonic plasma. You would not be able to take it without some serious conditioning. You need to elevate your soul to a higher level to be prepared for this fleeting arc of energy. Your mind has to be turned into a powerful capacitor and charged. Only when you think you can't take it any more, the air crackles and flares eject into the open space. Now you know what it feels like to be a laser beam. Your eyes are wide open. All that noise you couldn't stand a minute ago was but a flashing sign: "prepare for a daring escape from gravity".


The fruits of our labor

It's tax time again, and with it comes the annual opportunity to reflect on how we - as a society - distribute the fruits of our collective labor. Since most of the products of modern era involve some form of collaboration of people, the problem of sharing the resulting revenues naturally arises. If you think that such task is trivial and hardly worthy of any neural activity, consider this simple example.

Let's say that Joe inherited a farm implement called "plum picker" from his grandfather and, as you might imagine, he wants to pick some plums with it. But he needs two associates to help him - perhaps he needs to stand on their shoulders while operating the devise. So he calls two of his friends and offers each 30% of the plum proceeds. Once they reach the orchard, however, Joe starts having second thoughts about his generous salary offer, and he downgrades it to only 10%. His friends gracefully decline and Joe has to find new partners. Fortunately, the village is full of people looking for work and eventually he finds two guys who will do that for 15% and that's the end of that.

In this case Joe has the decisive say, because he is the sole owner of the "means of production", so he determines who gets what. This may not always be in the best interest of the larger society or even fair. Joe may decide that he has enough money for now and let the plum harvest rot on the trees - leaving the villagers completely plumless. Also, the two helpers may work harder towards the final outcome and face significant risks, yet their negotiating position is hamstrung by the abundance of cheap labor in the village. If this simple example can produce uncertainty in the profit sharing conundrum, imagine the Gordian knot we'd have to untangle in cases where the individual contributions and ownership stakes are much less clear. Leaving the final distribution in hands of those who control the very last link of the production may be short sighted and simplistic.

For instance, consider a large semi-conductor company. The firm just designed a new production line, whose technology was inspired by recent theoretical breakthroughs in particle physics. They set up a semi-automated circuit etching plant and before you could say "chip", the upper management is making tons of money, some of which they reluctantly share with their underlings. Now let's take a look at two possible problems in the corresponding "fruit distribution" scheme.

First and obvious problem rests in the price the management paid to engineers who devised and constructed the production lines. Did they pay the engineers enough? Or did they short change them (in the obvious profit maximization effort), knowing all too well that if these engineers wouldn't assemble the machines, some other group would. This is essentially the same dilemma as with the plum pickers. At the end of the day, it is the top dog who holds the carving knife.

The second problem is more subtle: Did the management share their profits with all the parties involved in the product development? This is where the tracking of shares gets pretty murky. You can't really produce a complex object like say integrated circuit without contributions from a whole host of people, some of whom may be long dead. There were engineers who tried similar designs in the past and their failures paved the way for the eventual success. Did they get paid? There were physicists whose basic research in the field of quantum mechanics enabled the emergence of semi-conductors. Did all the researchers and scientists who worked towards that goal get paid? And we can go even further. Quantum mechanics as we know it would not exist without a rather esoteric mathematical discipline called complex analysis. There were mathematicians who worked out its rules in the 19th century unaware that 100 years later someone would use the fruits of their labor for practical application. Should their heirs be remunerated too?

Economy is a complex discipline and one of its more difficult tasks is to figure out not only how much to pay those who help in the production - the workers - but also how much to give back to the society whose treasure trove of knowledge enabled it. And something should definitely be given back. Otherwise those who elbow their way closer to the feeding troughs will have ever increasing advantage. To help quantify the attendant income disparity problem, we can take a look at the quantity called CEO-to-worker pay (the ratio between the CEO compensation and median worker wages). It used to be around 20:1 in the 1950s, then 42:1 in 1980s, 120:1 in 2000s and nowadays it is about 200:1. Amazing, isn't it? Sure running business is more complex these days, but the management apparatus which helps making the right decisions is more complex too.

Unfortunately, rather than starting a debate on what is the optimal range for this ratio, we hope against hope that the incarcerated market (sorry, but contemporary "market" is no longer free) will figure it out for us. But it won't. All it will do is further enrich the thin top layer of the society who figured out how to monetize something that grew out of our own long term endeavors (in the previous example the knowledge of complex analysis and quantum mechanics for instance). To be sure, I am not advocating egalitarianism. The entrepreneurs do deserve a huge chunk of the pie for their courage, talent and organizing skills, but whether their needs should be the only factor dictating the shares of the common pie I am less certain of. In my opinion, more of the spoils should come back to the community and help fund public infrastructure, education and basic research, even if it takes another 100 years for it to bear fruits.

As long as production was simple, like collecting plums, capitalism handled the necessary logistics quite well. But with globalization and automation on the move, the network of interrelationships is so intricate that a narrow group of directors, mostly focused on immediate profits, can hardly comprehend all its ramifications and social implications. However, relying on heavy taxation by central governments may become counterproductive, as bureaucrats do not have stellar reputation for efficiency. Perhaps some form of rotating collective ownership will usher the third way. That is the $64,000 dollar question teasing our generation's best economists.

Blue Geysers

Beauty likes to be seen. It likes to roll down the glitzy runway, slaloming between the camera flashes and absorbing the idolizing looks of the audiences like a starving attention sponge. That's why publicists, groupies, paparazzis, and admirers of any kind are in close tow whenever it rears its pretty head. But every now and then - if you are lucky - you can catch the beauty in its secret chamber behind the oak door, far from the limelight and far from the fawning crowds, resting and restive at the same time, sipping on a broccoli shake and not worried at all about the make up.

As I was walking through downtown LA this past Easter, cutting across the Hope Street on my way from the LA Cathedral to the Walt Disney Hall, I noticed a blueish glow coming from a distant and completely unlit part of the surrounding area. When I came closer I found out that the ethereal light emanated from four fountains dancing out an unlisted nightly soliloquy in a flat pool behind the John Ferraro Building, not far from the northwestern tip of the Grand Park.

Downtown LA has a number of fountains, all resourcefully illuminated, and greatly enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. But these were different. There was not a soul in sight, let alone a recording device. Yet they did not seem to mind. The four fountains were bursting their little jets off and streaming their Rhapsody in Blue across the dark water surface regardless of the complete lack of an applauding entourage. So while the night quietly rotated its socks, I sat down on a concrete walkway and pondered the gravity defying sorties and the ease with which the spouting cavalry purged their spectacle of any hints of ostentation. What was left was pure style.

If you ever are in the neighborhood and want to have a private moment with the beauty, go for it. It is just a few blocks from the Civic Center station and the chances are that the four blue geysers will still be there, performing their solitary routine and geysing tirelessly for your eyes only.



Frank Lloyd Wright once said: "Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles." And the city of angels lives up to this reputation. Only a major galactic dump could conjure up such eclectic mixture of profound and mundane. Just reach underneath its pillow and marvel.

...trinkets and churros at santa monica pier, a knotted maze of freeways, a former magician smitten by a can of cold beer, non-stop fountains dreadlocked in the grand park, native indians showing off their plumes in front of the union station, scarlet bricks and deep green lawns at ucla, concrete riverbeds gaping their off-season yawn, people who kiss with an accent, tempest of colors in a flowerpot, lactose intolerant pet iguanas, clinical trials of your favorite comedy skit, eternal quest for being one with probiotic yoghurt, human carnivores on a steak stakeout, the cult of concentric circles, colorful lines at universal studios, a glimpse of a movie star, a load bearing planetarium, the metallic scream of the walt disney concert hall, twelve shades of never, pirates and fairies on the corner of hollywood and highland, a voodoo parlor next to a muffler shop, hungry microphones on a prowl, a feminine axe and a bottle of innocent flies, scorched mountains overlooking the malibu beaches, a bonsai crouching behind the buddhist temple in little tokyo, a rolling hangover at 4am, the ubiquitous presence of mexico, speedy cars...

Socio-economically, it comes down to about the same. Los Angeles is a desert of poverty generously dotted with oases of opulence, but if you tip it over on its side, it gets all intermingled in one giant lump kind of...well...LA.

Joshua Tree National Park

This Winter has been like a marathon runner. It hasn't displayed any spectacular bursts of freezing and snowing grandeur, like so many winters before it, but it kept chugging on at a steady if modest pace. By the time it got past its equinox expiration date, it grew blithely oblivious to any hints the calendar may have been trying to throw at it and, without losing its cool for a single second, ground on and on and on and on, one chilly morning at a time, straining the patience of Spring seekers with a constant barrage of low forties. Its suffocating grip around Washington, DC was so unrelenting that the famous Cherry Tree festival (obviously dependent on blooming cherries) had to be postponed twice.

Since I was struggling with a lingering cold for most of March this year, I decided to seek a temporary thermal asylum in the Los Angeles area. But neither Santa Monica nor Long Beach provided the needed blast of heat that would scare away the virus colony that went camping in my throat. In fact, the cold Pacific breeze was quite beneficial to their well-being and I had to wait until a trip to the Joshua Tree National Park to finally fry to death all the unwanted microorganisms that I brought from DC.

Joshua Tree is one of the lesser known parks ensconced between two mountain ranges on the Southern end of the Mojave desert. It enjoys a broiling subclimate and is about 20 degrees warmer than LA. It derives its name from a peculiar plant which looks half like a palm and half like a tree and from a good distance might be mistaken for a limb of a calcified spider. The spotty presence of this tree gives the park the appearance of a green oasis in an environment of pervasive dryness. Trekking into its heart may feel a bit like hiking on Venus, but it is an endeavor worth taking.

Desert has its peculiar bittersweet charm - a fierce commitment to suffering if you will. This is where the rebellious Sun dances out its orgiastic etudes, this is where air tickles the vibrating tentacles of your imagination, and this is where the defiant life secretly sips from an elixir of warmth. Long live the vainglorious oven! You can paddle down the rivers of sand and discover your inner Dali among the well rounded boulders streaking by the roadside. Or you can try and tame the parched spirits of thirst that are floating past your senses just a few feet above the whitened gravel. You can even swim with the cactuses in the prickly sea of the Cholla Garden.

And most importantly, you can blow all your bacteria out of water for good.


Emperor's Old Clothes

If I ever end up at a job interview for an emperor, it will be an unmitigated disaster for I have absolutely no qualifications for the position. My royal lineage is spotty on a good day, I have no appreciation for opulent feasts and there are about 50 things I enjoy doing more than bossing people around. Oh, and I also have don't have much predilection for new clothes which - as far as I remember my fairy tales - is a total must for an aspiring monarch.

See, to me new clothes are like a straight jacket. They restrict your freedoms. Especially if you are a nature person.

I first noticed this as a kid. Any time I was hustled into new clothes my range of possibilities dwindled appreciably. I could not sweep the old concrete tubes lying by the roadside, I could not follow a creek into a tight underpass, I could not join a soccer match in progress, I could not sit down on a tree stump or a mossy boulder and contemplate the enthralling strangeness of this planet. Under the watchful eyes of my Mom, I was slowly becoming a prisoner of the textile industry.

Over the years I had to concede that new clothes do open certain doors, especially in business, but if I have a choice, I still feel much more comfortable in well worn, baggy, even slightly patched rags, preferably with colorful wash-cycle resistant stains from old escapades, delicious wild berries or chemical experiments.

It is not like I enjoy being dirty. It is more about the potential the old clothes bestow upon my world trajectory. If an opportunity presents itself I know I can pursue it to the full extent of my desires, without worrying that I will tear a sleeve or smudge my trouser leg. Sure, looking spiffy is cool, but the sense of freedom associated with adventure ready apparel can be outright intoxicating. That knowledge that should a fox whisk by I could dart right after it into the underbrush is what elevates me to a higher form of existence. Being a supreme emperor of my own destiny. And in that capacity, old clothes are the recommended formal attire for governing. And occasional mischief, too.

No disrespect to new clothes, but all you can really do in them is stand stiff like an ironing board and enunciate capaciously: "How do you do, Lady Harrington?"


The History of Early Church

The pope has resigned. Just like that.

When you witness something that last happened in 1415, historical reflections elbow their way into the forefront of your mind. And rightly so. There really are only a few social phenomena more fascinating than the continuing story of Christianity - the fortunes and misfortunes of the religion that has become a major force in the development of the Western civilization. Whether you believe in it or not, the world as we know it would have been very different without it.

Not so long ago I was browsing around You Tube and found a three hour documentary titled "Christianity, the First Thousand Years" - a riveting account of travails and growing pains of the early church and communities associated with it. Watching it was like making a trip to the springs of the Amazon river, exploring the little creeks and rivulets winding their way through jungles of human evolution, and yet knowing all too well what potent water giant they'd become 2,000 miles down the road.

Since that time I spoke with a couple of Christians and was surprised how little they actually knew about the origins of their own church. Most of them expressed the conventional belief that the history of Christianity had been a smooth and linear progression - a collection of small streams that grew effortlessly and steadily and eventually culminated in the robust hierarchy of the Catholic Church, placing monasteries, abbeys, cathedrals and other houses of worship at the feet of humanity. A development guided along by the almighty hand of divine inspiration, eloquently encoded and chronicled in the good book. In other words, their view of history resembles a retouched technicolor infomercial devoid of any signs of usual human fumblings.

For them, the movie is quite an eye opener. All three hours of it: from daily fights for the sheer survival of the new creed to subtle power struggles of an incipient player on the political scene. You get to understand the significance of rituals and sacred dates borrowed from old religions to facilitate the transition to the new belief. You get to appreciate the edge given to it by its emphasis on eternal life and social values. You get to watch its tentative maneuvering through the pantheon of contemporary gods as it searched for a place of its own. You get to admire its efforts to define itself against the backdrop of existing beliefs, especially against Judaism, from which it expanded. Never mind that at times it lead to such extremes as Marcionism which effectively proclaimed the difference of their respective Gods. And you also get to ponder how the growing church dealt with the problems of scale and how it tried to streamline and unify answers to some very basic questions lest it should fragment itself into non-existence, a multi-decade endeavor that came to a head at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). In other words, you get to marvel at the slowly rotating carousel of living history.

Another fascinating aspect which the movie touches upon is the composition and development of its canonical texts. Most of us might simply assume that the Bible as we know it was just handed down to us by higher authority. But the politics behind the holy scripture is as fascinating and intricate as the text itself. At first each congregation maintained sacred texts on their own. However, as the flourishing church tried to cope with the increasingly confusing spiritual legacy, a need to organize and consolidate their written heritage naturally arose. Soon after the Nicean council, today's Bible gradually emerged from numerous meetings of church's elders, from a mixture of literary hand-me-downs and - yes - from behind the scenes politicking. Considering how much was at stake in controlling the final message, it is not too surprising that many records fell through the cracks. Recent archaeological discoveries offer but a fleeting taste of what was left behind: the Gospel of Thomas - full of Jesus' recorded sayings, the Gospel of Judas - portraying its protagonist in a light much more favorable than other narratives, the Gospel of Philip - best known for its portrayal of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Mary - advocating more active role for women, or the Gospel of Peter - firmly rejected for its insinuations of docetism. The number of gnostic or apocryphal texts not only shows that there was no shortage of written testimonials to choose from, but their mind boggling variety also illuminates what the forefathers of the church deemed undesirable and harmful to its chance of success.

Needless to say, the movie could not skirt one of the most profound events in the successful campaign of the young faith - the battle of the Milvian Bridge - a truly turning point for the heretofore distressed church. In this episode of endless Roman battles for the imperial throne, Constantine and Maxentius fought over the route across the Tiber river. What made this one distinct was the fact that Constantine, allegedly inspired by divine vision, daubed the shields of his warriors with the Chi-Rho sign (Greek letters signifying Christos) and went on to win the battle. Whether this act actually brought about the victory is hard to say. What we can say is that for Christians it meant the end of prosecution, the beginning of religious tolerance (Edict of Milan) and after a few decades even promotion, encouragement and at the end the status of the official church. Flying on the wings of the sprawling Roman Empire, Christianity took off and never looked back.

The movie presents one more angle of looking at this event though. What if it wasn't the church that benefited from Constantine's conversion. What if it was the Emperor who used the wide spread appeal of Christianity as a glue to try and unite the crumbling empire. You be the judge.

Of course if you search YouTube a bit deeper you find many other intriguing links to follow. From Nicolas Notovich and his assertion that Christ was strongly associated with the already established buddhism and influenced by it to the extra-terrestrial connections in the vein of Erich von Daniken. One way or another, these tangential contributions further accentuate the prominent role of spiritual quest and search for higher forms of being in our life. But you don't have to venture that far into the video labyrinth. The History of the Church as presented by the movie is interesting enough. It shows that even divinely inspired action follows the same general dynamics as other social movements. They reveal the same anatomy of power. By understanding how this originally small and obscure sect survived 2,000 years and how it snowballed into a major religion, we can get useful clues about our present condition.


Truth or Consequences

When you drive from Albuquerque to Las Cruces in New Mexico, you will probably get a good chuckle when passing by the town of Truth or Consequences. Who on Earth - or any other planet for that matter - would name their town like that? But the reality is relatively prosaic. The place is named after a radio show from the 1950s whose host promised to broadcast it from the first town that would adopt the its name.

But I like this unusual name because it reflects one of the fundamental dilemmas of this world. Every now and then, we face a problem and in order to resolve it we have to choose between dealing with it directly (the truth) or postponing it until it grows into a full blown crisis that will enforce the resolution through its own cascade of uncontrollable events (the consequences). On the surface, understanding the roots of our plight (the truth) seems preferable, but untangling their snarled structure often engenders identifying culprits, which in turn invites conflict - and that is something most people are trying to avoid. For this reason, many of us let the problems fester until the consequences set off a cathartic waterfall of actions. Perhaps, there is a primordial belief in deus ex machina involved in this calculation. The drawback of this approach is that consequences can be unpredictable and eventually much more devastating that facing the truth early on. It's like worn brake pads. You can choose the truth and deal with them early (replacing them) or you can wait until some kind of consequences materialize themselves - which they often do as you speed down a steep grade road while sandwiched between two semis.

For couple of decades the western world has lived above its productive means and our time for choosing the truth or the consequences has arrived. What cannot be sustained for ever, won't be. So what shall we do? Going for the truth could be a tricky business as there were many beneficiaries of the ocean of liquidity that our financial bubbles created. Direct or indirect. Names would be named, profiteers singled out, clawbacks demanded. That would involve investigations and some pretty hard judgments about who did what and who didn't, who profited and who was shortchanged, whose wealth has been justified by hard work and talent, and whose has merely been a chance reflection of the associated game of smoke and mirrors. Separating these would be next to impossible. Not to mention that we'd also need to admit that much of our past wealth, and by extension much of our lifestyle, were illusive and a fair reset mechanism would have to be found. And that's a tall order. So for now we have been papering over the widest rifts and wondering whether the coming consequences would have the form of an avalanche or a tsunami.

To make this Gordian knot even knottier, the strength of recent economic turbulence has blurred the lines between causes and consequences. If the experts cannot agree on the flowchart of the problem, what chances do unwashed masses have? Consider this. One pearl of wisdom I keep running across in the comment sections of economic blogs is: "The current predicament of Greece/Portugal/Spain/Italy shows that austerity does not work". This statement always makes me scratch my head a little bit: what!? That is like saying that hangover shows that we should never have stopped drinking. Austerity is the consequence, having lived beyond our means for several decades is the problem. It's not like we are choosing austerity because it is cool. Just like we are not choosing to have a hangover. But most adults understand that when you do something silly, the way out will involve unpleasant things.

But I guess the main reason we get so easily confused is that consequences have a nasty habit of showing up at our doorstep uninvited and wearing patched camo uniforms. For a good example take a look at the Italian politics. After suffocating on the European fiscal periphery for a couple of years, supported only by a weak technocratic government, the Italian voters finally opened their door and guess who showed up for the party? An unlikely triumvirate of a comedian, a communist and a convicted corruptioneer. How is that for funny consequences? And I am not even peeking into their political programmes. That would be a real fiesta of camouflage. See the Achilles heal of democracy is that in general it rewards pleasers, rather than leaders. And bad things supervene.

That is why choosing the truth - however painful - is mostly the way to go. Being proactive rather than reactive - even if it entails an occasional conflict. For the resulting consequences are rarely the kind that you could bring home to Mom.

Almost There

I like the end of February.

On the surface, the winter still maintains a stranglehold on nature. Its chilly trappings are strewn all over the land - snow covers much of the ground, roofs are adorned with frosty icicles, trees show no sign of budding foliage and barely a tweet is heard in the fields (except possibly from @birds). Hibernation is the prevailing way of life. But if you pay attention you will notice subtle harbingers of change. Although the temperatures are still nominally low, the sun rays are growing stronger by the day, which in turn is becoming perceptibly longer; an increasing number of daredevils will leave their coats at home and some mornings your nose may even catch that Earthy whiff of a waking soil.

Somewhere up there in the heavenly projection room, an operator is about to swap reels and switch from a silent black and white movie to a musical vaudeville rendered in full technicolor. In other words, the Spring is just behind the corner, ready to be delivered on a magical conveyor belt of time. And that is precisely the part of the year which I appreciate immensely. That "almost there" moment. That brief spell just before something splendid arrives. That magical instant when the cake you are about to eat is still intact, but you can already smell its tickling aroma.

I think that is also why my favorite weekday is Thursday. The sense of the imminent weekend is nearly palpable, but its wholeness has not yet been compromised. It gleefully beckons from its Friday gift wrap and you can revel in its untaintable glory all you want. The anticipation of pleasant things to come is often as enjoyable as the things themselves and that is what gives the month of February its poetic edge.

It is like bursting into the homestretch of a long race with a sizable lead. Now the victory is all but guaranteed, coming your way fast and you can clearly see it and wave back at it. You can savor the final phase in a way which was unimaginable just a few laps back when you could barely catch your breath and all your opponents seemed stepping on your heels. Now you can bask in the forward glow of the celebration without (yet) losing any precious second of it.

All that is left to do is stand up on an imaginary bridge and let the flow of time lay the goodies squarely at your feet. Like a good river, February is always there ready to usher in the most inspiring part of the year.


Say It Ain't So

(Limping Duck Press Agency)

Our world is full of injustices.

According to the New York Magazine, the Wall Street bankers and traders are worried about the size of their bonuses this year. While the overall amounts of multi-million dollar packages are up 8% for a grand total of $20 billion in 2012, many insiders are complaining that the pace of this recovery is not fast enough. Apparently, memories of go-go days fade much slower than the associated needs and the lingering image of past excesses is a painful thorn in the side of new reality.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think this is where we should draw a line. This is not some guy next door we are talking about. This is our beloved bankers who are lying in bed long into the night with their bleary eyes wide open. Are we to leave it like that?

These are the knights who escort our money to the perilous jungle of world's stock exchanges and then write all those wonderfully eloquent reports of why the money perished there. These are the marketing daredevils who put on a hard hat every day and go about selling opaque financial derivatives to all those in dire need of opaque financial derivatives. These are the powerful Maestros who create money out of thin air and then lend it to us at interest. These are the recipients of billions and billions of interest free money from the central bank, some of which - and hold your breath now - may find its way into our own accounts. These are the creators of numerous asset bubbles that give us that extra dizzy roller-coaster feeling just by reading the Financial Times.

We cannot let them suffer a measly 8% raise. That is inhuman. Sure, the late housing bubble did nearly annihilate our economy, and yes they made tons of money on the way up, but the reluctance with which they accepted our bailout was moving. To all those who argue that their greed holds our pensions, our savings and our jobs hostage I say: let's not forget that they are also the ones who give us free peanuts while our pensions, our savings and our jobs lie prostrate on the floor. So ladies and gentlemen, the time for action is now.

I propose that we exert pressure on our elected representative and ask for a law that would guarantee a minimum bonus, so that no wallstreeter has to be concerned about buying only one mansion ever again. In addition to this, we should offer art auction discount coupons and government issued yacht stamps to all those that might need them. Subsidized public transportation to Cayman Islands, preferably using a fleet of Dassault Falcon 7X jets, is a given. Last but not least, I propose we establish an independent chain of Salvation Armani stores, where our top financiers could buy affordable expensive watches, business suits and assorted leather briefcases.

Then they can rise from their designer ashes and do what they do best. Playing in a rigged casino during the day, and ordering Chateau Margaux and stomach boggling quantities of purebred lobster at night. And we all will get that sweet rewarding feeling of financially backstopping their heroic service to humanity.

Paging Adam Smith

The job situation is not getting better by the hour. And worse, experts don't expect it to improve any time soon. Due to technological advances, machines are consuming larger and larger slice of the available labor cake. Yes, that cake that we are trying to eat and have at the same time.

Labor-free production is slowly taking over our economy: automatic ticket dispensers and teller machines, robotic assembly lines, fully mechanized hydroponic growing plants, software based financial expert systems - just look around. Unfortunately, the distribution of the resulting profits is heavily slanted towards the upper part of the spectrum. Engineers who devise the machinery may get a one time fee, a payoff whose size is limited by fierce competition from other teams, but those who own the production lines will get a life long stream of spectacular returns. Clearly, an equalizing force is called for.

For centuries the law of capitalism was such force. Its internal workings provided a natural way of balancing the powers of capital and labor by finding a mutually acceptable equilibrium. But even Adam Smith could not have foreseen the magnitude of the present onslaught on labor. Without a significant and well thought out upgrade, we'll end up in an extreme situation where the ownership of the larger economy is so concentrated that all the profits end up on the books of a very small fraction of the population. Underneath the narrow elite layer there will be a small class of technocrats and specialists maintaining and servicing the manufacturing process, and the remaining 99% will be relegated to lives in poor ghettos or to a matrix like artificial reality with minimal physical and spiritual subsistence - think intravenous lines combined with 24/7 streaming TV channels.

You might argue that this upward flow will be mitigated by servicing the needs of the ultra-rich production owners. The Emperor's New Jobs, so to speak. But I would have two objections to it. First, while the riches do trickle down, they do not necessarily land in areas where humankind can make best use of them. I mean how many yacht builders, posh hotel caterers, or exotic manicure specialists do we really need? Second, such order would only solidify the incipient economic hierarchy into a nearly permanent financial stratification of human race. I thought we had overcome the paradigm of rulers and servants centuries ago. We deserve a bit more than bunch of crumbs fallen down from the table of the Masters of the Universe. But we won't get it until we ask for it loud and clear.

The attack on the well entrenched income inequality should be waged along two major front lines.

1. Local

When it comes to redistributing money the centralized governments can be a bit heavy handed. There is a reason former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, coined the phrase "All politics is local". There is a definite advantage in knowing your neighbors in person. Smaller communities - say the size of an average midwestern town - have better odds of managing their resources efficiently than huge and largely anonymous urban centers. Each community would get a share of the money according to the size and local representative bodies would then decide whether to take care of the elderly, support crafts and arts, help educating the children, or just clean up streets and make the public spaces more pleasing to the eye. Grants distributed with the knowledge of local conditions could represent a large part of the eventual spoils of robotics.

2. Global

Certain problems that mankind will face in the coming decades are too big for governments to address and too risky for private enterprises to delve into. In short, our ecosystem is becoming a bit overwhelmed with 7 billion busy bees. Sure, nations have their own scientific programs with global impact and private enterprises are already tooling up for sending well-heeled adventurers onto the celestial joy ride. But those are only small potatoes. I am afraid that our ailing planet hurts for some truly supranational and concerted efforts. We need to assess and possibly ameliorate the effects of global warming. We should stop plundering the natural resources as if we were the last generation on Earth. We also have to find ways to protect ourselves from rare cosmic intruders, otherwise we'll follow dinosaurs into the Universal Hall of Shame. And while on the subject of the Universe, exploring and eventually colonizing the outer space might not be a bad idea either. In other words, these is no shortage of noble tasks that need our collective attention and wherewithal.

But let's be real. People are not selfless angels who would gather around the fire one night and start planning for better future while singing Kumbayah. There was once a system - fittingly called communism - which kind of operated in this way, but its progressive nature and bottomless optimism turned out to be rather hollow. On the surface it looked impressive: strapping workers got up every day with songs on their lips and, hand in hand with farmers, managers, artists, shop-keepers and engineers, toiled from dawn to dusk in order to build a new classless society, ostentatiously driven only by concern for the common good. But underneath this veneer oozed ugly gunk of reality: bureaucratic waste, disorder, lies, incompetence, graft and ubiquitous corruption. This great social experiment not only failed miserably but in the process of rotting also proved that overtaxing the producers and spending the money through inorganic centralized structures is not the way to go.

And that is where the new Adam Smith comes in. He or she (Eve Smith anyone?) will have to find a natural and efficient procedure which will take the tremendous bounty generated by fully automated multinational corporations and redistribute it for the benefit of the whole global community. They'll have to find a self-regulating feedback loop that will bring about that elusive social equilibrium, the narrow path that winds its way alongside a slippery ridge with two deep abysses on either side. On the one hand, we do not want a world where virtually all aspects of economy are controlled by a few who happen to own the means of production (often through efforts of their parents or grandparents) and whose increasing wealth may or may not trickle down through random acts of charity, but we also do not want a society where efforts of individual entrepreneurs are dragged down by the inefficiencies of a bloated government. There is a tremendous potential waiting to be unleashed in all of us but finding an appropriate channel for it will be one of the finest balancing acts humanity every faced.

Well, Adam and Eve, wherever you are, you have your work cut out for you.

Soul Searching

Human soul. A kiss of God for some, a torchlight of mankind for others. An underground labyrinth of neural connections inhabited by some of the most skittish shadows known to man. This is where joy and sorrow dance their uncomfortable dance. This is where good and evil play out their eternal game of tag. Soul is one of the most enigmatic objects in this Universe. And somehow not quite belonging in it. Like a large oriental mirror placed on the surface of the Moon.

The question of what exactly this strange "thing" is has mesmerized world's thinkers, philosophers and theologians for centuries. Is this elusive entity seemingly residing in that small cubicle behind our eyes tied to the human body and will cease to exist with it? Do we recycle souls - as in reincarnation - or do we have each one of our own? Are our individual souls part of a vast universal soul or are they completely disconnected from one another? The stream of possibilities is endless.

Few days ago a friend of mind called me and as our conversation progressed toward more esoteric subjects he touched upon another puzzling aspect of our existence: If the soul is in principle immortal and capable of existing elsewhere in some better state - what is the point of dragging our poor bodies through this valley of tears that we call life? Of course, like most earthlings I have no idea. But I found this question a good fodder for speculation.

In my opinion, soul is a bafflingly intricate entity and as such cannot be not brought into this world fully developed. It needs time to grow and mature. Think about butterflies for instance. They too are not born in their full technicolor splendor. The logistic challenge of folding wings into the egg is too much of a hassle even for Mother Nature. Instead they spend the initial phase as larvae, whose sole purpose is to consume plenty of food and prepare for the adulthood, and only when the time is right the larva turns into a chrysalis and a few days later a grown butterfly can finally flap its wings. This multistage process is more feasible than all-in-one development, and can perhaps be likened to a multi-stage space rocket whose early stages really serve no other purpose than launching the final spacecraft into the right orbit.

I think soul is just like that. It takes a lot of effort to mold it into the proper form. Education, compassion, introspection, emotions, intelligence, plenty of tears and love, even some star gazing - all that complexity would be nearly impossible to encode into our DNA before the moment of birth. Our body and mind are just larval stages which give us basic infrastructure to attain higher forms of being gradually through living. You can think of your body as a kind of booster rocket. It grabs the newborn self-awareness and throughout the course of life lifts it into the orbit.

What the correct orbit is - and whether you need a special spiritual training to reach it - is the point theologians and secular thinkers may argue about for ever. I am not even going there. For starters I would be happy to know if this soul is an objectively existing medium or whether it is just a delusion of a brain which happens to give those who believe in it an evolutionary advantage. But that is an issue we probably won't settle in the foreseeable future. Certainly not while being on this side of the graveyard wall.


Humankind's Groundhog Day

According to most history textbooks, civilization as we know it arose some ten thousand years ago, during the so called Agricultural Revolution, when large bands of our primitive ancestors apparently came to conclusion that hunting and gathering was for suckers and started poking their increasingly green thumbs in the cultivated soil. Placed on a geological time scale though, the history of mankind is really just a blink of an eye. Or so we thought.

According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, a strange discovery was recently made near the Russian city of Vladivostok, a midsize Far Eastern port close to the Chinese and North Korean border. One of its residents, a guy identified as Dmitry, was trying to light a fire in his home when he spotted something odd about one of the coal chunks. A metallic-looking rod - later determined to be 100,000 years old - was pressed into its body. Fancy that. A sign of metallurgical prowess harking back to the times when we were supposedly still throwing stones at midsize ruminants for a living. This strongly indicates that our love affair with technology is much older than we think and had probably started way before the denizens of the Neanderthal valley realized that bronze axes looked totally cool on their cave walls.

It also opens an intriguing possibility that the arrival of intelligence on this planet wasn't just a one time thing, a slowly breaking dawn at the onset of the Holocene, but rather a periodic process like the alternation of day and night. What if the whole history of civilization on Earth was just one giant Groundhog Day experience? You know, that movie in which Bill Murray, a disgruntled weather reporter, gets stuck in Punxsutawney and as he tries to awkwardly woo his female coworker, he relives the Groundhog Day over and over again until - after countless loops - he finally gets all the romantic ingredients right and wakes up besides her the next morning.

Perhaps our Earth was roamed by advanced cultures before. Perhaps more than once. It's just that they - much like Bill Murray's character - kept making stupid mistakes which tossed them back in time whenever they reached certain evolutionary level. Sophisticated social orders may have developed along the way, whole nations may have flourished, but when they grasped for that technological apex, their inherent character flaws got the better of them and they evaporated into oblivion. If you think about it, there really is no shortage of ways for us to self destruct. Polluting the environment with noxious chemicals. Bioagents gone wild. Warming the global climate beyond agricultural tolerance. Or just good old fashioned nuking ourselves to smithereens. Whatever poison our hypothetical predecessors chose, they just knocked themselves right back into the stone age. Rinse and repeat.

And so we go on and keep bootstrapping ourselves from a semi-erected hominid state back into a highly structured society only to repeat the same blunders a few millenia down the road. At the end, we escape the evolutionary infinite loop only when we finally get it right and turn into truly intelligent and cooperative life forms. The kind that possesses natural wisdom, doesn't litter their own neighborhood with plastic junk, uses finite resources with discretion, doesn't choose pathological liars as political representatives, and above all does not wage endless wars.

But I do not think the present cycle is it. Reading the New York Times front page suggests that we are still a bunch of sophomoric teenagers playing with matches at a dynamite factory. And when it all goes boom, the great artifacts of our era - pyramids, cathedrals, airports, football stadiums - will disappear underneath a thick layer of sediment and volcanic ash. But sooner or later - perhaps eons from today - the right combination of psychological traits will bring about the enlightened version of humanity who will break the vicious cycle, stop bickering and scheming and start pulling together in the same direction. They will tend domesticated animals, sow their fields, build their own pyramids, rediscover electricity and one sunny day they may even make it to the moon.

Now imagine how puzzled they will be when they stroll around the Sea of Tranquility and find Neil Armstrong's footprints there.

Climactic Poker

Global warming is a tough call. On the one hand the Arctic ice melts, methane in the same region leaks freely and weather records keep popping up all over the place. On the other hand, average temperature rise has slowed down a bit and the catastrophic consequences we have been hearing about for a number of years now failed to materialize. Should we do something about it or not?

Climate change deniers like to marginalize the threat by saying that the Earth temperatures have always fluctuated. Indeed, they did. But whole species were wiped out in the process, too, not to mention that natural disasters could reach magnitudes which our fragile agriculture is ill prepared for. Sure, a herd of hardy mammoths might not have minded an occasional monster storm, but in a world where many man made structures are quite sensitive to vagaries of elements we better pay attention.

To put it in other words, let's consider the following scenario. You have two potential problems. One of them is fairly likely, say its odds are 50%, and its realization will cost you damages of $100. The other one is fairly unlikely but catastrophic. Let's say its odds are only 5% (one in twenty), but if it happens, your losses would add up to $100,000. Which of the two problems will you worry about?

I would say the latter one. Yes, the case for the harmful climate change is still tentative. But the huge potential damage outweighs the smaller likelihood. We should worry about the climate change long before its symptoms are obvious to everyone - for when they finally are, it might be too late. If this seemingly innocent trend turns into a full blown planetary emergency, the associated cost of dealing with it would be gigantic. Do we really want to put our way of living on the poker table?

As every year, I spent this Christmas in the Czech Republic with my family. It was the warmest Christmas on record. Not a flake in sight. After the holidays, we went for a short visit to my parent's summer house in the mountains. It is a healthy 2 mile walk from the nearest train station, and the dirt road leading to the house is usually snowed in or completely frozen in late December. But this time around it was all soft and muddy and when we reached our destination our boots looked as if they just came back from a field trip to German trenches. I do not remember that ever happening before.

I simply flinch at the idea that the next generations would never see the White Christmas we used to enjoy as kids. I think we should make an effort to prevent any harsh and irreversible climate change that might be heading our way. Even if the odds of that actually happening are only one in twenty.


Close to the edge

So the big drama of the fiscal cliff ended just as we expected.

With our banged up federal bus teetering precariously over the edge, its nose sticking unsupported into the precipice, its wheels still spinning from the wild ride that lead to this moment, our elected representatives carefully tiptoed to the back of the bus and in the eleventh hour eked out an uneasy compromise which raised taxes on the rich and postponed all other important decisions by a few months.

Sadly - this noble effort drilled barely a dent into the problem of unsustainable deficits. Indeed, the public pail is as leaky as it was before, but in the spirit of positive thinking we might call it a promising start. Sure many on the right have decried the higher taxes on the "job creators" and attacked them viciously, but to me this small step toward righting our fiscal ship seems more than fair. Many of the services we pay for - whether it is the functioning infrastructure, backstopping the financial system or keeping the global trading routes safe - benefit owners of the capital more than rank and file members of the labor force, so it makes sense that those who are more invested in the safe and orderly social environment should support its protection a little bit more as well. Not to mention that hiking the upper bracket may help alleviate the ever widening wealth inequality which has been on the rise for the past several decades and slowly decimates the once thriving middle class.

But not everyone sees it that way. For some, higher taxes are the enemy number one regardless of the state of public coffers. One of the main arguments coming from the foot soldiers of Grover Norquist's Army is that many high income earners may not be willing to produce under such oppressive conditions. That they won't have enough incentives to create and innovate if government takes extra 3% from their paychecks.

I think such fears are greatly exaggerated. First, the resulting 40% is still generous compared to the top rates we had under Kennedy or Eisenhower. And second, those who won't be willing to take the deal can be replaced by those who will. That is the beauty of free markets - they work in many settings. Those entangled networks of interlocking economic and social mechanism have the wonderful property that they automatically seek optimal solutions. Isn't it strange that we use their power in determining (and optimizing) worker wages, but when it comes to taxes, especially in the higher brackets, we let lobbyists determine their magnitude?

Let's see how this works. You pay your laborers the lowest price at which someone qualified would be willing to take the job (as opposed to selling his or her expertise elsewhere). If someone is willing to do what you demand for $10, why would you pay them $12? Now let's apply the same principle on the taxation side. If someone qualified is willing to take a position with a 40% salary tax, why would we give it to someone insisting on the 36% tax. If you are unwilling to pay higher taxes on your generous compensation package, you are free to vacate your position to someone who will.

For every entrepreneur, there is someone with a similar idea just waiting in the woodworks, someone whose dreams went unrealized because the market had already been saturated. For every well paid manager there are many deputies or associates who have the same skills and are eager to prove it. In other words, we should let the free markets help us determine the proper level of taxation as well. Of course, that assumes that the whole system will not overspend, because in that case the overall tax burden would derail the whole economy. In other words, we'd need to stick pretty close to a balanced budget.

In economy, however, nothing is ever certain. This idea may not work for million reasons. But granted how dysfunctional our present system is, we should look for alternatives. I think if we managed to control the spending (by limiting deficits) and applied market principles to all components of the system, we might just arrive at an elusive equilibrium that is the hallmark of a properly functioning society. That magical point where public welfare is low enough to provide sufficient motivation to work, where workers make enough to sustain their families, and innovators and risk takers can still keep enough of their profits to make the risks worth their effort.

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