Archives for: February 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.