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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: May 2013

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.

cc

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".

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