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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2014

The fogs of Martinique

I am not very fond of cold temperatures and I have a rather strained relationship with snow, so every Thanksgiving - at the onset of winter - I make a trip to climes sporting much sunnier weather. This year I made a trip to the French island of Martinique.

One of the major attractions of this Caribbean gem is Mount Pelee, an active volcano which scorched the island's capital St Pierre in 1902 and killed nearly all of its 30,000 inhabitants. Its elevation of 1397 meters and plenty of humid and warm air around make for a perfect condensation machine. Indeed, the peak is rarely seen without a shroud of heavy clouds.

As we drove up to the parking lot at Aileron, it was clear that our hike will not be an exception. A thick bank of mist and constantly rolling steamy cavalry were informing us that we could definitely expect a low visibility event. As we were climbing the steep ascent into the mountain, we could barely see 50 feet ahead. Only on rare occasion did we spot the surrounding scenery through gaps in the fog. There was no one on the trail.

At the second hut we came to a branching point and took a narrow path steeply descending into a volcanic cauldron. It felt a bit irritating, because climbing up to that point was a grinding effort and here we were - losing all that precious elevation and not knowing how low it would go. After about 150 meters we reached what seemed to be the bottom of the pit. It felt like a tropical dream. Lush vegetation combined with fatigue and shreds of water vapor created a surreal, almost halucinogenic imagery. Every now and then we could see a vague mountain face looming over us, but mostly we were left to our own imagination.

A hint of reality sometimes creates much stronger impression of reality than reality itself - a fact known to horror movie directors and makers of female apparel. I love those moments when life throws you into a Tim Burton movie set. Those precious places where you can step out of time and space and see the world as a fluid stage. This was one of them.

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No Noble Idea Left Uncorrupted

In the dying days of communism, I often pondered what Lenin would have thought had he lived through the miasma of latter day Soviet Bloc. Decrepit factories, runaway party apparatus, silenced dissent, inability to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, denied education for kids of political rivals. That was not the worker's paradise. That was a rotting corpse of a society.

Last year I read an article about outrageous compensation packages for public employees in California. I was surprised to find that the list of those who receive six figure pensions from CalPERS was over 12,000 long. Among those were retirees collecting nearly half a million in pension and employees of fiscally troubled cities earning over 200k a year. The idea of labor unions was a great tool in the struggle against unchecked power of greedy capitalists, but somehow in the hands of public servants it went terribly wrong. Over time this once noble idea became a smokescreen for the looting of public treasury.

Or what would Keynes have thought of the public spending mechanism in its present embodiment? His great idea became a vehicle for pork and bridges to nowhere. What would Christ think if he saw opulent trappings of Vatican or the cover ups in the children abuse scandals. What would the founding Fathers think of the revolving door between Washington and the Wall Street?

Over the course of its history, mankind had come up with plenty of great ideas - trade unions, social justice, church, public spending. Yet for one reason or another they have all gone terribly wrong somewhere along the way. Perhaps visionaries saw the moral landscape from their elevated plane and none of those that came afterwards could match their perspective. Perhaps they treated their idea as a child, they wanted it to succeed, they were willing to sacrifice for it. But those who carried the torch had much less love to give. They thought for themselves and the ideas have slowly been corrupted.

Too bad that thinkers and dreamers and so few and far between. We could always use an upgrade in the quality of torch bearers...

The Third Way

For most of its natural life, the theoretical underpinning of the world economy has been floundering between two extremes devised by two philosophers who have long been dead. One of them is the Marxist socialism put forth by the German economist Karl Marx, the other one is the capitalist free market system that originated in the works of the Scottish thinker Adam Smith.

Frankly, I think that neither author would recognize the fruits of his intellectual labor these days. The Soviet style socialism has imploded two decades ago and whatever is left of it in the likes of North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela would make its founders run for cover. The heavy handed rule of proletariat coupled with the constantly confused planned economy were a travesty of structures originally proposed by Marx. Nor would Adam Smith be very impressed if he saw the inner workings of our modern day capitalism - the never ending struggle with stifling regulations, the pervasive collusion with public officials, the weight of global conglomerates running roughshod over small businesses and, on top of that, the whole global economy being jerked by the manipulations of central banks.

In some sense - and with a bit of vulgarization - the difference between these two extremes can be rephrased as follows. In capitalism, a factory belongs to a capitalist who heeds nothing but his own profits. In socialism, a factory belongs to the state, which really heeds nothing (as it belongs to no one). One is too selfish and the other too lethargic to take care of the needs of the workforce, and by extension of the larger society - especially in the quickly changing world of the 21st century. That makes one naturally wonder why we can't have the system, in which the factory would be owned by all who work in it through some kind of shareholder participation. The middle ground so to speak. Everyone would have some skin in the game. The top management layer would have larger share of ownership, of course, but inclusion of lower ranked workers would provide at least two benefits - not only would it create an extra dose of motivation towards an increased productivity but would also alleviate the growing income inequality.

In other words, we need a brand new paradigm. The proverbial Third Way. Neither left, nor right. Forward! A system which combines the advantages of both extremes - the ideas of sharing and motivation. Instead we have been alternately following the taillights of Marx and Smith, not really noticing that during our journey the landscape has completely changed and we may no longer be going where we want to be. On the road to prosperity and participatory economy.

hh

Solar storm of 1859

The finer the instrument, the more fragile and breakable it is.

If you grab a simple axe, you can toss it into a pile of wood, you can hammer a rusty nail with it, you can dump it in the pond and it stays nearly intact. Its practical utility remains unchanged.

Now if you do the same with a cell phone, it is an entirely new ballgame. A mere drop on the floor may play havoc with its delicate circuitry. You have to cherish your phone and protect it from elements and from misuse.

Our technology is like that too. Centuries ago, it was but a blunt axe and we could disregard all kinds of dangers. Our world was fairly robust then. These days our dependence on electronics, chemistry and cheap energy has reached levels where we have to start thinking very seriously about protecting them from all kinds of cosmic dangers.

Some 155 years ago, on September 2, 1859, a massive solar storm tore across the vast open spaces and hit the Earth. Northern lights were seen as far south as Rome or Atlanta. The telegraph poles were alive with sparks. Yet despite the brute force of charged particles, not much damage was done to the Earth's primitive and rudimentary technology. The storm of similar magnitude would cause severe damage to our present way of life. The power grid would fry, transformers would fry.

Fortunately, events like that do not occur very frequently. But we need to be prepared for its eventual return. We no longer use stone axes. A lot of sensitive machinery has been woven into the electronic tapestry of modern life. And most of our wealth rests on it one way or another. Sooner or later, a storm of lethal magnitude is bound to come back with a vengeance.

But when you open your average newspaper, you won't find this on the list of top concerns of global elites. They, apparently, have plenty of problems with each other. And that does not bode well for the future. In lieu of fomenting whatever little family squabbles we have over the resources of this planet, we should protect our electronic plumbing. For without it, all the resources you can shake a stick at will be of little use to us. Because on that day, the civilization as we know it will cease to function.

Das Ewig Weibliche Zieht Uns Hinan

"You kick like a girl", shouted out one of my teammates during our co-ed soccer game on Tuesday. Some of the present ladies frowned and a passionate debate ensued over the waterbreak.

I personally think we should celebrate and embrace our differences rather than try to artificially suppress them. The sexes are different in most biological and psychological aspects and pretending it is not so won't solve any of the related problems. Imagine we insisted that knives and forks should be used equally for cutting and piercing. What a mess that would be. They are not functionally indistinguishable. They simply have complementary strengths, much like men and women.

What should be fought for is equal rights, which includes the notorious "equal pay for equal work" as a special case. In addition to that we should recognize motherhood as a socially beneficial and truly exceptional role and should make sure that mothers are fully supported in this calling (for instance the current length of maternity leave in the US is utterly insufficient by the developed world standards). But we should not throw the baby out with bathwater. Our differences still make the world a more colorful place. To use a poetic license - men are rivers, women are lakes. Men are prying arrows of volatility, women are soothing anchors of stability.

In short, men and women are like magnets with opposite poles. If we neutralize the charges, will we still get the same dynamos? I doubt so. We'll get two listless, odorless, colorless chunks of matter. The French knew how important women are to the machinations of this world - "Cherchez la famme". But what if "la famme" will have become just a guy with softer body features - what will turn our world around its axis then? The question, of course, remains whether we can maintain sufficient differences without regressing to past stereotypes? After all, women have the same right to contribute to progress as men.

Goethe ends his Faust on a similar note: "Das Ewig Weibliche Zieht Uns Hinan" (the eternal womanhood draws us higher). In the postmodern unisex world, women will have to find a rather subtle and fleeting balance between retaining enough of their femininity to inspire men while spending enough energy to inspire themselves? Where exactly that balance lies is the $64000 question.

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Strings wanted

In the old days, the business of lending was more local, more straightforward and thus more transparent and responsible. The local banker would interview the borrower and make a sound risk assessment. It was crucial to do so, because bank carried the debt and was responsible for the loan repayment.

It seems that in the modern finance the debts (particular on the state level) are issued through a magic fairy and then hurled into the global securitized cauldron where they lose all sense of identity. No one carries any responsibility for poorly conceived, designed or executed loans. The actual market dynamics that could possibly track performance of such monstrosities is hidden behind several complex layers of semitransparent statistical fudging. Any visible links to underlying reality have been lost in the chaotic maze of economic models. No strings are attached to objects entering this maze.

Or consider public spending. Keynes said "government should spend in bad times, and save in good ones". Yet somehow that other part fell out of the picture. Fiscal discipline and common sense are dirty words. "Let's deficit spend today, and live responsibly tomorrow" has been the mantra of our Snake Oil Brigade for the past few years. Our national debt has more than doubled in the past decade. But when our expenditures do not generate economic growth and when they do not improve lives, no one takes the fall. No one answers for the malinvestment, for squandered funds and misallocated capital.

And private sphere is not much better. Was there anyone held responsible for the 2008 crisis? During the previous banking crisis in early 1990s, some 200 executives were charged and some sentenced. This time around? A big long silence. The bozos who brought the world to the brink of financial destruction walked away unscathed. In some cases, executives even got golden parachutes.

And that is exactly what is wrong. No one has personal responsibility for wasted money, for poorly designed expansions, for unbalanced public books, for nominal growth at any cost, for plundering natural resources. If too much bad debt clogs the system, the central bank just prints oodles of new money and off we go again. We paper over any personal responsibility. In the never ending monetary shower, we can no longer spot the good investment. Yet that is how capitalism should work. Reward the smart, punish the stupid. The present cycle of privatizing profits and socializing losses is a very poor replacement of that old mechanism. It rewards only the ones who are well connected to the printing presses so to speak.

Yet the longer we postpone the simplification - the poorer the rest of us will be. We have to find strings. For laws, for political decisions, for money. Where it comes from, who earned it, and where it will be invested. After all, you can print new money, but you cannot create new value. You can print tomes of regulations that no one reads, but you cannot create character and honesty. And most of all, you cannot print wealth.

Half Way to Ipanema

(jabberwocky)

if birds can spawn the brazen dreams
if fish can dance on razor's edge
if earth and air can find their seam
i will be their bluish match

when sun can blow its shining horn
when clouds can stand on heaven's ledge
when shrubs and trees are freshly born
i will be their greenish match

cavalry of scissors may tickle a bit
learn to explode in thousand screams
learn to run through drizzling pencils
in the hectic charade of inner peace

wade into your annotated dream

cc

Case for Higher Taxes

The yields on the Spanish 10 year note dropped below 3%. We live in a strange dream.

It seems that the never ending money printing exercise of central banks is dragging the real world into a financial twilight zone, where no one really knows what the risk associated with debt is worth, where the responsibilities for repayment have been blurred and the prices of assets are whatever the central bankers want them to be. Monetary smoke and mirrors is the only thing that keeps sustaining the runaway government spending. Should the interest rates go back to historically normal levels at which the market risks would be fully priced in, most governments in the developed world would go belly up.

What seems clear, however, is that the primary benefactors of the frivolous monetary spigots are people with assets - which mostly means the top 1%. Whether your capital is stored in real estate, stocks or bonds, the rising financial tide has most likely lifted your boats into the stratosphere. But for people who live hand-to-mouth, the conditions on the ground have slowly been deteriorating. The fact that inflation hasn't exploded yet is only due to strong deflationary pressures from the general improvement of productivity and utilization of cheap labor overseas.

In such circumstances I think we should return to simpler basics, starting with a balanced budget. Every state spends whatever the taxpayers are willing to directly support through taxes. That means both higher taxes and lower spending. Where the balance of this process lies should be the subject of a fair political fight. And to make sure that such drastic measures won't drag the economy back into the quagmire of prolonged recession, any future monetary easing should be done on behalf of all taxpayers. Sending checks to all people should kick start the consumption and equalize the beneficial effects of financial engineering.

The thing is that when the public entities can borrow beyond their means, it is very easy to smuggle unnecessary items into the budget. Only when each and every expense comes from someone's taxes will there be a true political debate about what is necessary and what isn't.

Taxes should also be gradated to accommodate the revenue needs. Why? Because the higher up in the food chain you are, the more you benefit from the functioning society. Not to mention that it is really hard to evaluate many factors that are contributing to the bottom line, such as environment, public education, safe trading routes or essentially free contributions of past authors. Even free market cannot fully appreciate those costs and put a price tag on them. No one can really come up with a great idea on his own these days. All the low hanging fruit has been picked long ago.

Most technological advances are made on the back of numerous collaborators, scientists, researchers, whether through freeware or by making use of old scientific results. Say you make a great discovery in semiconductors and are ready to monetize it. You pay your workers and staff, you pay for your input materials and then whatever you get for your outputs is your profit. Right? But imagine the countless hours of public research that went into your discovery? How are those accounted for? Who pays mathematicians and physicists whose theories enabled the engineering discovery. Who pays the teachers who taught them? Who pays authors of free software that enabled better programs. Simply put, not all social benefits can be expressed in terms of immediate pay structure. By making contributions to society today, we enable similar discoveries in the future.

We will have to rethink the idea of taxes. We will have to find mechanisms that will counteract the increasing income inequality. Or we will wake up one day and realize that the Earth belongs to a thousand or so richest families.

Arizona Wave

There are magical places which you can cruise into on well paved roads, their natural attractions are described by multilingual information tables while your travel needs are taken care of by an army of tourist professionals. And then there are those that have been - by design - left as they were. No trails, no signs, no hot dog stands, no souvenir shops. Just you against the wilderness. Mano a mano. Arizona Wave is one of those places.

But have some serious patience ready. This breathtaking rock formation in the North Coyote Buttes area is pretty darn difficult to get into.

Since the Bureau of Land Management which operates the stratified wonder wants to preserve it in the most pristine form, only 20 hikers are let into the area every day. In practical terms that means you first have to win a daily access lottery which is held in Kanab, UT, every morning. Due to the spreading reputation of the place, the chances of winning are roughly 1 in 10. But even if you lose, you'll have a good time. The drawing presided over by the head ranger is titillating and entertaining at the same time. If you do win, though, you can expect a short (35 miles) drive on US 89 towards Page, AZ and then about 8 more miles on a local dirt road (not always accessible to standard passenger cars). This road is so dusty that I saw avalanches of fine orange dust sliding down our rear window as we were traversing the hallowed desert.

And that is just the beginning. From an improvised parking lot at the Wire Pass trailhead, it is still more than 5 miles in unmarked, parched and mildly confusing terrain. The "buttes" - rock formations that gave the area its name - are quite similar to each other and most of the ground is solid rock so you cannot rely on the footprint of previous visitors. It is truly a pioneer experience and the ranger in Kanab tells many colorful stories of people straying way off course. The absence of the usual touristy crowds makes it

But the effort is well worth it. The Wave is all it is cracked up to be and then some. It is beyond description both in terms of colors and in terms of shapes. The word that comes to mind most often is "otherworldly". Its undulating grace and petrified splendor will instantaneously enchant you. This is the Mecca of landscape photographers many of whom have tried to capture its majestic charm for decades. Most of them failed in sweet agony. And when you finally find that mystical angle which renders its curvy walls in the most pleasing manner, you can start exploring the surrounding gorges, ledges, rock faces and omnipresent buttes.

On the one hand I wish I could have spent more time there, but on the other hand the limited time makes the experience even more unique. Like a surreal dream hanging in the marble aisle of your memory.

gg

...and the Oscar may go to...

(Shot Duck Press Agency) Calling all bloggers and esteemed discussionistas, commie hunters as well as red plague apologists. Calling all romantically underutilized house wives and platonically overutilized verbal warriors, calling all poets in training, camera fiends, spaced out denizens of lala land, tireless trolls, compulsive hobbyists, carnival barkers, Egon Erwin Kisch wannabes, arm chair philosophers, Czech language explorers, frivolous gossip queens, political science junkies, even those whose mind has been utterly discombobulated by an overdose of merry-go-round. Come closer, Ladies and Gentlemen. It's that time of the year when we take you for a wild ride again. No, not the taxes, silly. It's the Oscars! So leave that strudel in the oven and grab a chair - this is gonna be one for the ages.

Believe it or not, we have found an even richer source of comedy and drama than Hollywood and all that jazz. After all, by now you must know all the Middle Earth critters by heart, including their genealogy twenty generations back plus the favorite brand of axes. So let's turn the spotlight on - drumroll please - the Czech politics! And hold on to your hats, because the palace intrigue will blow your mind. Or wallet. However, due to the fact that the Hollywood elite are not very well versed in the machinations of Bohemian law making, they have outsourced the voting procedures to the Military Academy in Vyskov this year. For this patriotic service we thank the members of this Academy profusely.

And now - without further ado - let's see what those mysterious envelopes hold.

The Oscar for Best Picture goes to ... Milos Zeman
If there is one image that will be haunting Czechs for decades to come, it is that of their popularly elected President swaying ominously over the crown jewels. Slightly less than picture perfect, his stately fumbling did not go unnoticed. What do you call such baffling display of static indisposition over a set of precious stones? Becherovka on the rocks? But at the end of the day, he did muster some spiritual powers (no pun intended) and fought the insidious virosis tooth and nail. Not quite the caliber of Humphrey Bogart, but perhaps Rodney Dangerfield after a long night at Cheers.

...and the Oscar for Best Directing goes to ... Andrej Babis
Look up in the sky, it's a bird! No, it's a plane! No, it is ANOman! The self proclaimed savior of the public purse is basking in the Sun. Yes, his closets may have more skeletons than a Medical School Supply Room, but the electorate is expecting nothing short of Jimmy Stewart on steroids. A sequel to Mr Smith Goes to Washington if you will. And he might actually be able to pull it off. Preceded by the reputation of a stern manager, his unorthodox approach to governing is already rocking various shaky boats in the Czech political pond. Say what you may about his murky past, but when it comes to directing, this quirky Slovak implant is second to none.

...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role goes to ... Jiri Rusnok
A star has been born through a malfunction of a microphone... The temporary premier's profound musings on the hardships of political life together with a fairly nonchalant attitude towards Nelson Mandela's funeral arrangements became the cocktail of choice on the evening news menu. A Molotov cocktail that is. All wrapped up and delivered with a classy pizzazz of a Frat Party Gone Wild. Talk about scuttling your own ship in broad daylight. But let's give credit where credit is due. It isn't easy for a grown up man to channel the mercurial psyche and parlance of a teenager. You have to be insecure and loutish at the same time. Trouncing Beavis and Butthead on their own turf speaks volumes to his talent. All I can say is: Well done, Sir! I mean - Well done, dude!

...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role goes to ... Jana Nagyova-Necasova
A Perfect Storm swept through the Straka Academy. Cunning like cardinal Richelieu, sweet like a strawberry short cake, hard working beyond your wildest dreams and executing her plans with the bluntness of a wrecking ball. Ten bucks says this Valkyrie could pack more punch than Shirley MacLaine in Donkey Serenade Hustle. Such force of nature would not be stopped by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, let alone by the hapless Czech premier. He may have been thinking about her administrative skills and work ethics when he brought her in in June 2010. Little did he know, however, that her eyelashes sported a batting average of 0.371. Take that Miguel Cabrera! A mere sound of her name could unleash famine and pestilence upon her foes. The alluring charm of her voice alone would make the Sirens jump off the cliff with envy. With such credentials under her garter belt, this was Cleopatra in the making. Too bad she pushed one brass button too many.

...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role goes to ... Petr Necas
This is the second Oscar for the popular romantic comedy "Sun, Hay and the Government". The former Czech prime minister did his best to navigate the mine fields of office romance, but his fate was already booby trapped. For this sort of a supporting role comes with the ultimate expiration date: "till death do us part". And a rap sheet the size of Lake Erie to boot. So let's get this guy on the Craig Ferguson Show and see if we can tease the really juicy bits out of him. Popcorn anyone?

...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role goes to ... Karolina Peake
Constantin Stanislavski once famously quipped: "there are no small roles, only small actors". The Ministry of Defense would like to present exhibit A. During the confidence vote in August 2013, under rather stormy circumstances, this plucky dame showed a remarkable flair for melodrama. Definitely something to tweet home about. And if the forces of dirty politics tossed her into the cold ocean in the process - no biggie. It may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. After all, the very same treatment worked miracles for Goldie Hawn in Overboard. If only she could find her parliamentary knight in shining armor. Paging Kurt Russell. Paging Mr. Kurt Russell...

...and the Oscar for Best Cinematography goes to ... Martin Komarek
A true artist always follows his passion, damned be the consequences. While the Czech Parliament wheeled and dealed 24/7 as it attempted to tame the bulls of the national budget, this former journalist and a son of the prominent economist had a different kind of 'toro' to contend with. As he went vacationing in Spain, his girlfriend managed to post a couple of his photographs on her Twitter account. The social networks were abuzz within hours. Look at that steady hand! What impeccable composition! And that tree trunk and the table in the background... oh-my-god... that's an instant classic! No kidding. Maestro's brilliant capture of the fleeting moment with a glass of wine brought back memories of such veterans of the world cinematography as Robert Richardson, Wally Pfister or Claudio Miranda.

...and the Oscar for Best Visual Effects goes to ... David Rath
The fix is in. The lawyers have finally figured it out: this enterprising doctor managed to perform that one delusion Houdini could never quite master. He turned wine into money. In front of the dazed police force no less. Even Jesus himself would have been impressed. Now the question is whether he can parlay his magical talents into a daring escape from whatever the Czech version of Alcatraz is. If he has another special effect up his sleeve, like walking straight through a 17 inch wall, Peter Jackson may consider shooting the Hobbit IV: the Wrath of Rath.

...and the Oscar for Best Short Film goes to ... Jana Bobosikova
Awwww. A young lady passing a bouquet of roses to the Big Cheese of the Klan of Scumbags and Chowderheads (aka KSC). How moving! Sniff, sniff... Well, let's just be grateful that this was a short film indeed.

...and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay goes to ... Bohuslav Sobotka
A delightfully botched list of ministers personally handed over to the Clown-in-Chief. What a way to kick off a star studded career. I know - it was one of his underlings who made this royal mess. But hey - the PM signed it, he gets the kudos. Tough luck, Bohusu.

...and the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature goes to ... Miroslav Singer
Move over, Al Gore. There is a new Inconvenient Truth in town. And this one is even less convenient than the old one: those colorful pieces of paper in our wallets are worth only what the central bankers think they are worth. For better or worse. The November charade of the Czech National Bank cleverly siphoned some value out of people's hard earned money. But at least we know now what causes the global warming uncle Bubba keeps yakking about. Ain't that the heat from them printing presses? It's gotta be. What a shame that banksters have first dibs on all that dough. But don't worry, eventually it'll trickle down your way. So cut the guy some slack and don't flip out. Yet.

...and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film goes to ... Karl Schwarzenberg
A dozing nobleman isn't quite what most people would associate with the word "animated". And that's exactly why he got the prize. Doesn't make sense? Who cares? This is friggin' Oscars, not an exercise in logic. Next.

...and the Oscar for Best Music goes to ... Vaclav Klaus
The swan song of the outgoing President was a shocker. His generous pardon halted prosecutions of some high ranking business executives whose Wild West attitudes towards privatization contributed to the moral marasmus and corruption of the post-communist politics. A Get Out of Jail Free card must have been a late Christmas present to the cowboys of capitalism. Sure, the moral of the story is a bit iffy, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. You only wish Martin Scorcese could have gotten hold of this material. Leaving the dark storyline aside, the music of this movie has been truly outstanding: Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot!

...and the Oscar for Best Production Design goes to ... Tomas Hrdlicka
Big politics is like a big theater. Not only you need great actors, but you also need a great stage. And no one understands the intricacies of building a good movie set with the right props better than this former member of the Civic Democratic Party. He knows the muddy waters of the Czech politics like the back of his hand. Whether he orchestrated the break up of the 101 coalition or the mud-slinging campaign against Andrej Babis doesn't matter. He would put the Corleone family in their place before you could say "Godfather". You feel your local representatives are just little puppets in someone else's hands? Welcome to the Brave New World where politicians come with more strings attached than a grand piano.

...and the Oscar for Best Costume Design goes to ... Milan Chovanec
You have to wonder what kind of disposable costume this aspiring turncoat was wearing in the days after the election. He treated his political affiliations the way Elizabeth Taylor used to treat her husbands. The more, the merrier. One moment you saw him dressed as a Machiavellian villain, the next he was the paragon of propriety. The last character who could change clothes this quickly was Clark Kent in Superman. So does that make him a hero, a sucker, a fink, a stooge, a wingman, a mole, a lionheart, a snitch, a patsy or what? Would the real Milan Chovanec please stand up? This chameleonic production and the ensuing hilarity confused the hell out of many a weathered commentator. And rightly so. We haven't really seen this kind of high level buffoonery since Maxwell Smart. Well, would you believe since Frank Drebin?

...and the Oscar for Best Film Editing goes to ... Michal Hasek
Political functions galore. A matching set of headaches. Ambitions burning. Election crashing. What to do? What to do? Got it! A late trip to Lany. Dinner in goose step. And then have at it. Political free for all. Shush now! The morning after. Meeting with the Big Kahuna? What meeting? Cut and paste. Snip and clip. All edited out. Cista mysl. Clean like a whistle. Problem solved. Atta boy!

...and the Oscar for Best Makeup goes to ... Vladimir Franz
Fantomas has absolutely nothing on this guy. Nuff said.

...and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film goes to ... Tomio Okamura
Oh, the sweet smell of cherry blossoms. The long winding road to eternity reflecting off a tiny pond. A gentle caress of the Emperor's hand. Akira Kurosawa on cloud nine surveying the scene with a watchful eye. Oh, you solitary heron, don't tickle my senses now. Here comes the samurai of yore wielding the scimitar of direct democracy. The glint in his eye sings of the morning Sun. The steel of his facial musculature could support beams of the Shikoku Saburo bridge. His was an unquestionably hard fought victory. Hip hip hooray! Hip... But... wait a minute. There wasn't anyone else competing in this category. Oh... well... forget it then. Beam me up, Scotty.

The above ceremony took place in the Parallel Universe, in a Galaxy so far away you have to take a train just to think of it. If you want to know who won the real Oscars, you have to find a way to get back to the real Universe - you know the one with the Milky Way and stuff. So step into the dark alley behind your local movie theater and push away the dumpster at its end. See, that's your Stargate terminal. Please, knock on it exactly five times. When the rusty door opens, don't panic and have your towel ready. Bon voyage.

Snowy Thought

Where is the border between "a few" and "many"? Imagine you start counting apples. One, two, three - that is still just a few, right? So you keep going - four, five (is it many yet?), six, seven (is it many yet?), eight, nine... It is really hard to say when a few becomes many. Our awareness level of slow moving threats is kind of like that. The danger is increasing but it is hard to pinpoint that day when we cross the border and the danger becomes clear and present.

Many in Europe are raising doubts about the pace of immigration, especially from undeveloped world. For now, there seems to be no immediate concern, but what about the future? At what point will the composition of the society change its long term dynamics? And if we do determine there is a problem, will we have enough power to stop it at that point? Or will the inertia push social glacier over the edge?

The same mechanism operates in the case of global warming. No one really knows whether we have reached the point of no return. The climate is not a linear process. It is a confluence of several factors each acting within its own time scale. To separate these into the individual components amenable to analysis and understanding seems to be a Herculean task. Some say we are going to freeze over, some say the Earth will turn into an inferno and some think we'll be just fine. The problem is that by the time all experts agree there is a problem, it will be too late.

This winter brought us a few snow days. Some would say many. Whether it was really many and whether it will have long term implications remains to be seen.

gg

Principle of Localization

The more complex a given system is, the more susceptible to unforeseen circumstances it is. The runaway proliferation of feedback loops breeds instability and that eventually turns into malfunction. Whether it is a modern software riddled with obscure functions or the whole economy with its myriad interconnections makes little difference. Complex systems are inherently prone to unpredictable behavior.

Any time you build a new function into your software or create a new company in the given economic system, you have introduced a number of new relationships with existing components and not all of them can be sufficiently debugged and understood. There are simply too many combinations of them. What with the lack of testing, something unexpected is simply bound to happen. Something no engineer has thought of before.

Our society is approaching a similar point where its hierarchical structure reaches its inherent limits and morphs into a maze of diminished control. The large swaths of electorate are disenfranchized, the income inequality is increasing and no one in the world governments has any idea of how they actually function. Behemoth agencies are sprawling across the public space without a hint of transparency and accountability. Intertwined in a jungle of multiply redundant limbs, they are becoming a breeding ground for all kinds of foul play and corruption.

In a simple system, say a medieval village, it is fairly clear who produces what at what cost and who owes what to whom. The production is completely localized and transparent. To extract value from such system using fraud and trickery is virtually impossible as everybody knows everybody and any "value leak" will very soon be obvious to all the players and easily fixed.

However, in a modern economy, where producers are linked in an intricate network of supply chains, where central banks are "flexing" the relative strength of the currency at will and governments are controlling most aspects of production, the true value is a much more opaque concept. Consequently, the opportunities for bilking are plentiful. The further away the money has to travel from where it was produced, the harder it is to control. Even without "parasites" such system would be vulnerable to unforeseen disasters. When governments are borrowing hand over fist, it is hard to determine the optimal fiscal regime for the society, because the thick smokescreen of debt makes it nearly impossible to balance things out and properly match the needs with the means.

Centralization presents one more danger, which I am only too aware of as I grew up in a centrally planned economy. To comprehend the behavior of the economic system is beyond capabilities of a single person or even a small group of individuals. Only the market - a collection of thousands of participants - has a chance of understanding and appreciating all its intricacies. And that is why the recent tinkering of central banks makes me nervous.

It is no wonder that in the era of global economy the share of wealth going to the top 0.1% is steadily increasing. In a centralized system, money flows where the control is - to the top.

And there are other nefarious mechanisms. Imagine two companies. They have two CEOs, two COOs, two sets of upper managers. That represents a good number of good incomes. Then a merger happens and all of a sudden, there is only one CEO and one set of top managers.

The money printing does not help either. The ones closest to the large liquidity flows are better positioned to profit from the knowledge of all its undertows. And that is assuming that they play fair, which is not always the case.

The complex world presents opportunity for economic mischief and the centrally planned economy is a convenient tool to achieve that. We need to decentralize the world and make it more local. And that means more transparent and fairer to everyone.

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