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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2015

Moraine Lake

Glacial Lakes are sporting a peculiar tone of blue, which viewed from a certain angle high above the surface may seem almost surreal. Almost as if a tanker with industrial blue paint had a terrible accident down there a few weeks ago. A truly dazzling combination of metallic boldness and pastel serenity.

That unusual tone is caused by the presence of the so called "rock flour" - a powder of finely grained minerals produced over the eons by slowly moving glaciers. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. In addition to the characteristically blue waters, it is also surrounded by a spectacular panorama of alpine peaks that bestows upon this charming place a well deserved postcard status. The view of the lake from a small rocky platform about 30 meters above the surface had become so popular that it was once featured on one of the older editions of the Canadian 20 dollar bill.

This is where the passing birds fall silent. This is where the long fibers of time streak unimpeded across the crystal skies. This is where the Gods of land sculpting come for their adrenaline shots.

Trombones and the bright blue blouses.

Mice partying with the mouses.

Moss is the boss.


The Sentinel Pass

Unbridled eyes galloping over invisible sediments of time. Green smiles parading on a carpet of alpine meadows. The glassy sky slowly turning around an axle of a glistening flute of Sun. Chiseling fibers of wind caught in the dreamy draft. Gelatinous blue of the glacier lakes. Memories wrapped in an echo chamber of half drunk glasses of wine.

I am sitting at the rocky outcrop of Sentinel Pass, muscles aching from a steep ascent into a narrow saddle between Eiffel Peak and Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies. Some 2610 meters above the sea level. Stern and rugged slopes frame the breathtaking panorama of the surrounding ridges. They say that "might makes right", but I would tweak this old adage to "height makes right".

There is something about the intrinsic three dimensionality of mountains that gives people certain natural depth without making them pretentious and affected. As if it was the brooding majesty of alpine peaks that prevented our souls from deflating into a parody of greatness. Sure, the hardship of life in the mountains itself is deterrent enough for aspiring crooks, but the beauty of snow capped peaks contributes an extra layer of magnificence.

Stacy Aumonier once wrote a short story "Kidnapped General", in which a bus driver hijacks a doubledecker full of London bankers, drives them far beyond the boundaries of the city and releases them into the fields and meadows so they could find the lost meaning of life.

And that is what mountains bestow upon our wretched existences. The lost meaning of life. Nature has a way of realigning our priorities, filling us with a sense of wonder and recharging our mental batteries.

Simple solutions

We do not live in easy times. The more people roam the surface of this Earth and consequently the more they interact, the more complex the dynamics of human race becomes.

The rules of conduct, legal or implied, have become so complicated that it is virtually impossible to know them all. Whether we like it or not, laws have become contradictory and even the lawmakers themselves do not quite know what every new piece of legislation entails. In immortal words of Nanci Pelosi - uttered during the big battle for Obamacare - "We have to pass this bill so you can find out what is in it."

We have lost our ability to think things through, we have lost our appreciation for sustainable solutions, we have lost our sense of social perspective. Our affairs have become so entangled in a chaotic dance of cause and effect that we cannot really tell what is the right way even if we wanted to. We wave our little ideological flags in lieu of rational discussion and we keep proposing quick fixes that do more harm than good.

And we do not care anymore. Because no matter what we do, the turbulence of life will grab our actions and produce something else anyway.

But it does not have to be this way. Simplicity still is the ultimate form of sophistication. Solutions could still be simple if only we were willing to employ our instincts in lieu of armies of lawyers and lobbyists. I think much of the what ails our time would go away if we implemented two basic principles:

1. all public entities must have a balanced budget
2. all control of money must belong to the people.

The balanced budget creates a necessary feedback loop that provides natural control to the extent of public spending. If people are not willing to pay for certain services (and that is what the taxes are), then those services are probably not sorely needed. The moment you start padding your budget with debt, you lose this natural control mechanism and all hell breaks loose. And if you start supporting the pyramid of debt with the crutches of loose monetary policy, you will just ask for a spectacular implosion down the road. And that brings us to the second point.

The expansion of the money stock yields immense powers. These powers should be brought back under the direct control of the people. Banks can still act as intermediaries between people with capital and people with business ideas, but the levers and pumps of the global money flows should be placed firmly in public hands. Specifically, any money printing operations should benefit all segments of the society equally. After all, we are all equal at the voting booth, so we should be also equal at the printing press. One man, one vote. One man, one dollar. As a corollary, any bank operating on the fractional reserve banking principles should effectively be nationalized. There is plenty of space for private industries in the productive sphere. National currencies and their management should not be a vehicle for profit generation. Those little pieces of paper that we use to represent wealth with should be - to paraphrase Lincoln - "money of the people, by the people and for the people".

I think these two simple principles would make the world as we know it more just and also more dynamic. But common sense does not get much respect these days, so I am not holding my breath.


Social Dividend

Having spent most of my youth in the socialist farce of the Soviet bloc, I naturally tend to the right hand side of the political spectrum, especially when it comes to economic questions. However, that being said, I believe that this century will experience a dramatic shift to the left.

The world is in the middle of two significant revolutions. Globalization and robotization are changing the dynamics of economic growth as we know it. Both processes are subtly undermining the fine balance between labor and capital. Globalization ruthlessly exports the production into countries where labor can be obtained under most favorable conditions, skipping standards and safety nets fought for by generations of workers and leaving armies of unemployed in its wake. And robotization goes even further, disposing of the need for human labor completely.

That puts a tricky question on the table - what are we going to do with the looming excess of workers? Now, and more so in the future, there simply won't be sufficient numbers of naturally productive jobs to support the current populations (again, most of the stuff will be manufactured by machines and automatons).

In the present state of technological progress, we will soon be able to provide basic living necessities for most people and slowly transform the society to a new model, where machines will be the primary producers and people will act as entertainers, managers and governors.

Sooner or later, a question how to redistribute the wealth produced by machines will emerge. Capitalism is not well equipped to handle it. Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth, not spread it around. If left unchecked, pure capitalism would throw us into a dystopian nightmare, where a selected few are ruling the subjugated and completely dependent masses. And that is where socialism will make its come back.

For some time now, the ideas of basic income or social dividend have been bandied about. And although to contemporary ears they sound like a horrible regression to the horrors of Soviet style socialism, I think that a system like that will eventually have to be implemented. But as always the devil resides in the details.

For there is a little fly in this noble ointment. In the old system, wages served as a feed back loop for controlling the size of the labor force. Thriving economy and higher wages would lead to bigger families, more workers and eventually to lower wages through fierce competition for the available slots. Since this mechanism of keeping population in check is going to be retired, something else will have to come in its stead.

And that is the challenge for the economic thinkers of tomorrow. If we implement the social dividend poorly, it will create more damage than good.

Earth's Day

Mother Earth is a pretty cool planet. Probably the coolest one in the whole Universe. Yet its own children are slowly turning her green pastures into a plastic junkyard.

Growing overpopulation, arctic warming, water shortages, disappearance of bees, never ending deforestation, overuse of chemical agents are but a small sample of human induced headaches facing our little blue green orb. Add to it the chronic hostility between nations, the misaligned financial system and an increasing number of nuclear countries and it must be clear that we as a species are moving in the wrong direction.

None of those problems are beyond solution. But they would require focus, coordination and a long term effort. All currently in short supply. And a tad of common sense would not hurt either. When I was a kid, I thought that by the year 2000 we'd be exploring the Solar system, developing sustainable communities there, harnessing clean energy and, in general, behaving like rational human beings that we purport to be. Yet we still focus on fighting each other over scarce natural resources, on polluting the intellectual space with mind boggling display of political, religious and cultural bigotry, and when we can't take that any more, we drown out our natural conscience by watching meaningless sitcoms on TV.

Over the past few millennia, we have found ourselves in the middle of an environmental and climactic sweet spot, in which, thanks to the recent advances of technology and agriculture, we can actually feed roughly 7 billion people. But that sweet spot is not guaranteed forever. Not only is the arable land disappearing, but that mild and moderate climate that makes large scale farming possible is more precarious that we think. Should we dislodge that finely balanced equilibrium, the ensuing storm may not become the spectacular catastrophe the climate fear mongers revel in, but we may lose the ability to feed ourselves.

To even begin tackling some of the accrued problems, we will have to start looking at other people as partners, not rivals. We will have to replace confrontation with collaboration. And that's a tall order in the era of increasing inequalities. We like to think of ourselves as little angels, but the bloody history of our species says otherwise. I am afraid only an invasion from outer space would make us show some team spirit. However, if we fail to correct our ways, then in the not too distant future, there will be a point where Mother Earth will say no to our silly genes.


The Czech Political Oscars of 2015

(Shot Duck Press Agency) All right, folks. Put that Holy Crusade of Yours on hold for a moment. Forget the Charlie Hebdo aftermath. Stop overanalyzing the child protection services in Norway. Enough about that stuff from Ukraine. And don't even think about the Greek debt. In short, put down whatever party flag you are waving today and roll out that barrel you keep hiding in the cellar. The Oscar night is upon us again. And that means it is time to kick back and take a look at notable performances on that continuously revolving stage that we all love to hate - the Czech politics.

Admittedly, this year hasn't been as rich in palace intrigue and outright shenanigans as the last one, but it did have its Hallmark moments. Even a simple roll call in the lunatic asylum of today's politics has a way of bringing forth all kinds of colorful characters. That's the saving grace of watching the ideological Lollapalooza on the evening news. Someone always goofs up. Someone always loses his temper. Someone is always caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But if you came here to find an ultimate moral to political fairy tales, take a number and get in line. We are all waiting for that miracle.

Having said that - let's see what those mysterious envelopes hold.

The Oscar for Best Picture goes to ... Milos Zeman
Hey, is this guy great or what? After the Crown Jewels extravaganza of yesteryear, he did not disappoint this year either. Nay, he bested himself. Following the infamous Sunday broadcast from Lany, he found himself facing the displeased citizenry on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. He should know better than to stir up hornet's nest in the run up to such an important day. But he did and, in return, we got yet another installment of the socio-culinary farse we might call Eggstasy - this time featuring the amazing precision landing of the First Airborne Cholesterol Brigade. Sunny side up, please. Red cards notwithstanding - it wasn't a match of equals. The shell shocked body guards had barely time to shield the Big Cheese with an improvised umbrella wall. By our reckoning, the most creative use of defensive rainware since Mr. Tau.

...and the Oscar for Best Directing goes to ... Jan Hamacek
Say what you will, but implementing prohibition on the hallow grounds of the Czech parliament requires the combined directing skills of Alfred Hitchcock and Blake Edwards. You kind of have to juggle zombies and clowns at the same time. But jokes aside. After the Liquor Terminator in Chief ordained severe restrictions on alcohol consumption, it was bye bye giggle juice for all the legislators. Oh, horrors! For now, let's call this episode "Booze on Snooze" because, frankly, I don't think it'll stick.

...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role goes to ... Tomio Okamura
The tragic events at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris put Islam on the European center stage and resulted in a giant swell of popular resentment. The anti-muslim tsunami reached the Czech shores within hours and who better to ride it than the master of populist sentiment, Tomio Okamura. His earlier suggestion of parading pigs in front of mosques may seem to have come straight from Jara Cimrman's playbook but it did earn him an honorary mention in the Washington Post blog. You can think of it as a little plug for the budding Hatred Industry and that's nothing to scoff at. In the meantime, he does what all populists do best - surf the wave as far as it takes him.

...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role goes to ... Anna Sabatova
On the flip side of that same wave rides none other than this perpetually controversial ombudswoman. Unfortunately, she got off on the wrong foot when she took sides with the Muslim students caught in the scarf controversy last summer. The public response was swift and uncompromising: The Wicked Witch of the Middle East stepped on a sticky wicket. Having become a lightning rod for the growing anti-Islamic movement, she wisely chose to hunker down and keep a low profile during the Charlie Hebdo days. Considering that this issue has a staying power, however, the chances are she will remain on the political A-list for the foreseeable future.

...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role goes to ... Miroslav Kalousek
The enfant terrible of the Czech right wing isn't exactly twiddling his thumbs in opposition. No siree, Bob! This pit bull just won't let go. A permanent thorn in the side of the ruling coalition indeed. Not only he unabashedly bashes his successor in the office, but he never hesitates to point his sword at other cabinet members as well. To wit: agriculture minister Marian Jurecka has been dubbed a "pig farmer" by him. Too bad Tomio Okamura hasn't heard this quip. I smell a business opportunity there. Together they could build a big pigpipe from the farm directly to the nearest mosque.

...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role goes to ... Laura Janackova
The cat is out of the bag - and boy - it's a doozy! This senatorial wannabe may not have gone all the way to the Upper House of the Czech Parliament, but her risque billboards with that sizzling boudoir feel and deeply sensuous overtones raised some serious eyebrows. And perhaps more than eyebrows (for guys anyway). Not that there is anything wrong with that. You wouldn't get this kind of attention if you posted a Mud Wrestling Bimbo League ad in front of a military school.

...and the Oscar for Best Cinematography goes to ... Zdenek Skromach
Leave it to the suave bard of summer pools to take independent cinematography where it has never gone before and then some. This eager beaver of action photography could not resist temptation and took a selfie during commemoration at the Terezin Memorial. While the lesser minds around him were occupied with paying the respect to victims of the Holocaust, he managed to forever capture his own facial expression. A snapshot heard around the world. Give him a hand everybody.

...and the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing goes to ... Stanislav Huml
The world expert on Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 and the darling of the Tin Foil crowd had some choice words this year for the Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. After denouncing her for relocating to Monaco and literally calling her "dirt", he was quick to congratulate her on the Fed Cup triumph. Man, just make up your friggin' mind.

...and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay goes to ... Milos Zeman
That a sitting president could unleash the verbal equivalent of 15 kilotons of weaponized manure directly into the airwaves is simply beyond me. In case you just came back from a mission to Mars: this epitome of propriety uttered a really really nasty word in his radio address last fall (psst, c'mere ... he actually used the word whose English equivalent rhymes with "punt" and describes a part of a female anatomy).

...and the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature goes to ... Vaclav Klaus
The noble quest to step away from the shadow of his predecessor brought the former Czech president to new heights this year. In the never-ending effort to get the upper hand over his popular arch-rival, he claimed to never have applauded during Havel's famous speech in the American Congress. Did he or didn't he? That was the question that set investigative journalists on fire. It took hours of sifting through documentary footage to finally show that he was wrong - he did clap during Havel's lecture after all. Earth to Klaus: just let it be.

...and the Oscar for Best Film Editing goes to ... Roman Janousek
Living in that gray area between the sunlit fields of top level politics and dark alleys of backstage deal making can be tricky. The foggy chiaroscuro is a habitat that requires lots of evolutionary skills, but this "godfather" of Prague's political scene mastered them all. The Duke of Moolah. The Prince of Hushed Voices. The Seventh Earl of Bling Bling. A big time operator - always plotting, always hustling. Despite spawning more rumors than Lindsay Lohan between rehabs, he managed to edit his resume with surgical precision - blacking out the right names, fudging the right numbers - so the authorities got exactly diddly squat on him. But justice is a patient hunter. They got Al Capone on tax evasion and Janousek got his comeuppance, too. He was involved in a hit-and-run car accident in 2012 and no scissors were sharp enough to edit this one out. Book 'em, Danno! (cue the smoke and mirrors...)

..and the Oscar for Best Music goes to ... Bohuslav Sobotka
Sheet music as a vehicle for popularity? Nah - that's so 2013. Try rap sheet these days. Seriously. How many Prime Ministers have their own rap video on You Tube? This pesky wheeler and dealer gained a definite foothold in the music industry. After he dazzled the English speaking audiences with his impeccable South Moravian accent, the YouTube rendering of his speech became an Internet sensation. Off the hinges, bro!

...and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film goes to ... Vratislav Mynar
Forget lowballing the new house, forget the lack of security clearance, forget the gossip about the sizzling romance with Alexandra - and just imagine. Can you see toy soldiers standing guard in front of the Prague Castle? Now they salute, now they don't. Now they salute, now they don't. That is what I call a cool animation.

...and the Oscar for Best Production Design goes to ... Andrej Babis
With the recent deficit running in the neighborhood of 100 billion Czech crowns, the national expenditure sheet isn't exactly a low budget movie. Enter this soft-spoken tycoon from Slovakia and his merry band of Undercover Doughnut Engineers. He vows to tighten the drawstring of the public pouch the same way Randolph Scott used to pull the reins in on runaway horses. Can he do it? Well, the jury is still out. He did promise to run the state like a company, but don't hold your breath for that balanced budget any time soon.

...and the Oscar for Best Costume Design goes to ... Robert Sedlacek
A classy sweatshirt, huh? How on earth did this guy manage to make it through the tie detectors?

...and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film goes to ... Eric Cantor
One of the most powerful men in the Lower House of the American Congress thought the primary battle would be a smooth sailing. This guy sure held all the aces, but a Joker blew up in his face. In one of the biggest political upsets of recent history, the current House Majority Leader lost his bid to a hitherto unknown professor of economics, one David Alan Brat. That's like Sparta bowing out of the Czech Soccer Cup at the hands of Slavoj Houslice. And to add insult to injury, the Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran did not even notice. Ouch!

Let there be light

I like late February. The time of latent colors.

On the surface, the winter still rules over the land with a firm hand. It is cold, snow comes down hard and the pond in the park is hopelessly frozen. It's black and white kingdom is indomitable. Or so it seems.

But the change is in the air. You can almost smell it. The promise of green renaissance is in the offing no matter which direction you look at. The colors are about to come out of the woodwork and that leaking expectation is nearly palpable. The days are getting longer. The nights are getting shorter. And snowmen are well aware that the patient drizzle of Spring is coming.

Let there be light.


How to balance a budget

The proverbial overspending of governments throughout the Western world has been a problem for most of the past 100 years. Now that the issue is coming to a head with national balance sheets on the brink of collapse and central banks going to extraordinary measures to keep the interest rates from exploding, we should seriously consider the way our political system operates. The sincere and effective effort to reduce government spending should be part of this debate. Something beyond the usual good intentions and empty declarations.

The debt in terms of GDP has been creeping up to the point of no return. Japan is running on fumes and an increase of interest rates on its 10Y note by 1% would trigger an instantaneous implosion. The Greek problem has been the staple of the global financial equation for the past 5 years. Italy, Portugal and Spain are barely keeping their head above water. So how do we force politicians to behave reasonably.

It is known that people respond best to stimuli. Most employers will tell you that a reward one receives for one's efforts should be proportionate to the quality of work. If we accept the premise that a large part of politicians job is taking care of the public purse, then we can set up a regime in which it will be desirable for politicians to behave like good stewards.

The principle is very simple. The larger the deficit, the worse job the politicians did. So the most natural idea for the correct incentive is for them to have their pay depend inversely on the size of the deficit. For every percent of the deficit, I would subtract certain multiple of it (say 5 times for easy calculation) from their pay.

Here is how it might work.

Let's suppose that the deficit is 1% and they make 100k. Then we would subtract 5x1% = 5% and they would take home only 95k. But if the deficit was 6%, then we'd subtract 5x6% = 30% and they'd bring home only 70k. That would make them think twice before spending like drunk sailors.

Now if only we could find politicians with balls big enough to implement it.

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