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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: December 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.


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