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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2013

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.

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