Thursday, August 25, 2011

Of Predators and the Matter of Matter

To Geneva, to spend a weekend with my son Mark, who is a physicist and working with others at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I left a worried Irving (my minder) back at the Manor. The threat from Al Qaeda had diminished greatly; that outfit was now on the run from American drone attacks involving Hellfire missiles fired from Predator aircraft. Irving was not so sure the jihadists had given up, but when I informed him of a certain mis-information initiative, he relented.

This plan was simplicity itself. Certain imams and mullahs had been approached by the most trusted and scholarly Islamic authorities we could produce, and given a message. To wit: The Qu'ran had been terribly mis-interpreted by said imams and mullahs, particularly where suicide and the treatment of women were concerned. Allah was furious, and, taking a page from Zeus, allowed the Americans to hurl His thunderbolts from the sky. Seems to be working, too.

I was staying of course at the Kempinski. Very pricey, but the view of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc was spectacular. The price had another advantage, in that it was beyond even the outrageous expense accounts of sundry U.N. personnel. Thus I could avoid any number of people walking around boring everyone they met and ever so afflicted with office.

Mark swept into my room, and gaped.

"Wow, Ma! Sure beats the dormitory at CERN."

"Life is there to be enjoyed. This is a suite -- your digs are next door. Laphroaig?"

Mark nodded, and I poured out two healthy dollops of the greatest peat based Scotch there is. "Now, how are things at the great smash-up?"

"We're close," Mark said excitedly. "We're very close to finding the Higgs bosun."

"Won't change a thing. Futile endeavour, really."

It's not futile! The importance --"

"Oh, don't get me wrong. Closing a door in a direction is not a Bad Thing. Allows for exploration in more profitable areas."

You're not still harping on that whole conscious thing, are you? That consciousness, not matter, is at the heart of the universe?"

"You bet I am. Time for you to review Heisenberg, Bell's Theorem, and Alain Aspect's proof of that theorem. And you wouldn't dispute that we are made of atoms?"

"Of course not."

"Well what staggers, or at least it staggers me, is that our atoms have become conscious that they are atoms. I admit this didn't happen overnight -- evolution takes time -- but this did occur. Hence my belief that EVERYTHING IS IN THE PROCESS OF BECOMING. Q.E.D."

Our discussion went on over a spectacular dinner, and well into the night. I ended all this by handing Mark a piece of laminated paper. It was a reproduction of a cartoon in which two puzzled archeologists are in a cave, gazing at a slew of drawings on the walls -- stick figures, hieroglyphs, circles, squares, and any number of unknown markings.

"Take your time with this, Mark. It will become clear."

Mark pored over the drawing for a long time, then exploded with laughter. "Oh, that's good. Very good." He had spotted, in an obscure corner of the cave, a simple inscription: e=mc(2).

"Got it from Punch Magazine," I said, "when it had an international audience. Sadly, not any more."

I miss Punch.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Of Iced Tea, Archery, and Poetry.

Ensconced in my office at The Manor, I had just finished reviewing accounts related to my sugar beet holdings. Everything was in good shape, save for one anomaly. I owed money, but the person who should receive the funds, couldn't. You see, the biggest of my sugar beet enterprise in in Ukraine, and the past Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been extremely helpful in arranging my acreage purchase, had then gone and lost an election and was now in opposition.

Now in Ukraine, being in opposition tends to mean that you are thrown into prison by the victor. Or, in this case, Victor, surname Yanukovych. In any event, I couldn't get the payment to her, at least not yet, and resolved to do what I could. This would mean getting in touch with one Vladimir Putin, and making him an offer he couldn't refuse. Then he could make an offer Victor couldn't refuse. My thoughts were on this matter when my maid and gardener Consuela popped her head in, carrying a large tray with several glasses and a big jugful of...something.

"I've just made some iced tea for the group outside," she informed me. "Would you like some?"

"What group outside?"

"Ms Levi, the Compte and Mr. Irving. They are shooting arrows."

"Are they now? This I had better see. Give me the tray, Consuela, I'll deliver the goods."

I took the tray, went outside, and sure enough, there were the Compte and Irving wielding the big Bickerstaffe longbows that Lord Strunsky loved to shoot when he was in the mood. I couldn't draw the things more than half way, but Lord Strunsky had no difficulty. Nor, it seemed, did the Compte and Irving.

"Ah," said the Compte, "sustenance. And brought by a veritable vision of pulchritude."

"Shut up", I retorted, but was inwardly pleased. Then, looking down the shooting range, noticed the two targets, all at this point resembling pincushions given the number of arrows that protruded.

Rachel, who had been engrossed in a book, looked up and said, "They're very good shooters My Lady. Very good indeed."

I didn't disagree, but had noticed something else. Irving's target featured a photograph of Iran's Ahmadinejad, which made a degree of sense, but I couldn't identify the photograph on the Compte's target. Not being shy about such things, I asked.

"General Norman bloody Schwartzkopf,' the Compte replied tersely.

"Why on earth?" I queried. "I thought old 'stormin' Norman' did a pretty good job during the first Gulf War. Got in, achieved the objective, got out. Mind you, that was on the orders of Bush Senior. And as we know, the son was not the father."

"Not the point," replied the Compte. "It was his statement when he learned that French forces wouldn't be participating. Now I admit, that wasn't our finest hour, but still, to say that 'going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion.' Merde. He's forgotten names such as Austerlitz, Jena, Borodino -- well, I could go on."

I thought that Schwartzkopf might remember other names, such as Blenheim, Trafalgar and Waterloo, but decided to hold my piece in the cause of international relations, or, more importantly, certain, er, other relations. He was a magnificent man.

At this point Rachel interrupted with a loud 'Wow!"

Everyone turned to her.

Rachel was waving a book about, and I saw that it was Lord Strunsky's copy of a text he had published himself entitled simply Poems Worth Reading. She must have retrieved it from the library.

"Just listen to this," she exclaimed. It's from a poem by Yeats, The Second Coming. Describes the current political scene perfectly. He writes, 'The ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.' Says it all, really.

There was a long silence after this, while each of us substituted various figures into the two camps. Finally, the Compte said, "Perhaps some iced tea?"

Good. One cannot be morose forever.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Life Can Be A Riot

Given the happenings in London, I had expected a call from Sir Harry, and was not disappointed.

"I would be interested," he said, "in your view. It's also why you get paid --"

"Surely," I interrupted, "this is more a matter for MI5 rather than your outfit." I was hesitant to enter this particular fray -- there are no easy answers, and even to evolve a strategy would take no small effort.

Sir Harry would not be put off. "My MI5 colleagues were impressed with your position on the American legislative gridlock, and appreciated your, how would the Americans put it, yes, 'off the wall' comments." (Sir Harry wanted me to know that he knows American idioms.)

"Very well," I responded, and I will try to assess the situation in a straightforward manner. No leg before wicket, as it were." (Thereby letting Sir Harry know that I am familiar with British idioms.)

Sir Harry snorted, then growled, "Just get on with it," and hung up.

In reviewing the situation, I realized right away that the English riots were a symptom, not a cause. The cause went much deeper, and perhaps finds its best expression in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. In that excellent piece of work, one of the Christmas Spirits confronts Scrooge with two ragged beggars, a boy and a girl. "The boy is Ignorance, the girl is Want," the Spirit informs Scrooge. "Both are fearsome creatures, BUT FEAR THE BOY MORE."

Indeed, and thus the root cause of the riots emerges. Ignorance. Until that is addressed, not much else will matter. Or -- I draw on UNICEF here -- things will not really improve until education is properly funded, and the Military has to hold a bake sale to build a bomber.

There is, of course, more to it than that, but education is where you start.

A second aspect that needs attention is the 'something for nothing' attitude. Welfare funds distributed without a concomitant responsibility to add to society breeds an attitude of entitlement and complacency, particularly where young males are concerned. Lacking work, and without the education to either gain employment or to evolve it through self enterprise, they HAVE NOTHING TO DO. Thus when there is an excuse for a good riot, well, they're all for it. Beats boredom hands down.

Now if education became the government's first priority, and welfare became associated with various forms of community service, light begins to appear at the end of an (admittedly long) tunnel.

Technology can help, but only as a handmaiden to a larger objective. Unless an idea put forward by James Marten in the old Datamation magazine ever comes about. To wit:

With a single flick of microscopic cilium, a one-celled animal will propel a stream of microbes towards the next living logic gate. Another of humanity's dream long deemed impossible will be realized: flesh and blood that actually thinks.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Debt And Dastardly Deeds

To Carisma, and lunch with my good friend Matilda Hatt. I arrived early, ordered a serious Grey Goose on the rocks, and began looking forward to the best ravioli in town. (My cook, Henri, disagrees, stating that the chef at Carisma has no understanding of how to use oregano. I stay out of such arguments; the ravioli remains superb.)

Matilda entered, distraught, plunked herself down, tried to smooth some wrinkles in her pant suit, saw my drink, and said "I'll have one of those too. Or maybe four. And you had to wear Givenchy, didn't you? But the skirt's too short."

I ignored this last bit. Tilly has no understanding of dress."Tilly, what on earth's the matter? You look worse than you did when you climbed out of that sewer in Milan sporting a very bloody nose."

"Just wait a bit," she said. Our waiter arrived quickly, and soon Tilly was similarly armed with Grey Goose. "Now, Simone, just listen."

What was concerning Tilly was the current debt crisis in the U.S.A., and the fact that the CIA was facing drastic cuts. What really irritated her was that her own finances were in good shape, yet she and other of her colleagues faced being either let go or severely downgraded for causes not their own. "Just how the hell did this happen?" she asked, fury in her voice. Then, to a passing waiter, "Yes, I'll have another."

"How it happened," I began, "was ignoring the advice proffered by Mr. Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield."

"What are you talking about?"

"Hear me out, it's really quite simple. To wit, 'Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.' The U.S. is now experiencing misery. Of course, so is Greece, Portugal, Spain and quite likely Italy. All because of that twenty pound ought and six."

"It can't be that simple."

"Granted. A person is not a country, and a little debt carried by a country helps the bond market along. That said, if the politicians in those countries had paid more attention to old Micawber's advice, a lot of the mess could have been avoided. But things intervened."

"What things?" I had Tilly's attention now.

Well, concerning the U.S., quite a number. The repeal of Glass-Steagall, the rise of arcane derivitives, a mis-use of VAR, the sub-prime mortgage mess and the arcane CDO's that followed, to say nothing of an extremely expensive and totally unnecessary war in Iraq. Oh, and at a time when you would expect revenue mechanisms to be front and centre to pay for all this, tax breaks were given to high income earners who least needed them."

Tilly just stared at me. Then taking a healthy swallow of her drink, said "I understood the Dickens stuff, but not the other."

"It's OK, Tilly. Neither did the politicians or the financiers. But I have hope. Barack Obama does understand the issue, although he faces an uphill battle with certain members of Congress who insist upon having a tea party and putting ideology before common sense."

And for the first time since she had sat down, a small smile appeared on Tilly's face. "So it will be all right then?"

I was quick to respond. "I didn't say that. In fact, things will likely get worse before they get better -- the debt hole is a deep one, and even Obama might not be able to make progress. After all, as Schiller tells us, 'Mit der Dummheit kampfen Gotter selbst vergebens.'"

"What the fu --"

"Sorry." Tilly was fluent in Arabic, Farsi, and Pushtu, but German not so much. "What Schiller is saying is 'With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.'"

"I want another drink," said Tilly