Updates, Live

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Household in New England

And an evening image:

La cucaracha soñadora

Era una vez una Cucaracha llamada Gregorio Samsa que soñaba que era una Cucaracha llamada Franz Kafka que soñaba que era un escritor que escribía acerca de un empleado llamado Gregorio Samsa que soñaba que era una Cucaracha.

(There was a cockroach named Gregor Samsa who was dreaming he was a cockroach named Franz Kafka who was dreaming he was an author writing some story about a clerk named Gregor Samsa who was dreaming he was a cockroach.)

Augusto Monterroso knew for good what it meant to be short! And HANAFUBUKI knows what it means to be short in Japanese :)

(The Thousand faces of HANAFUBUKI)

(Augusto Monterroso)

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Just 1981111

(video by 1981111 - blwolf)

Today is my anniversary, and this is a very cute piece of poetry offered by 1981111 to all those who browse the blogosphere with open hearts and dreaming minds. Enjoy!

(The videos of blwolf)


Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Tale from Brothers Grimm

- The Scarecrow and the Yellow Stockroom -

Sonatine for a Table and Four Chairs

Wilson Farms

Wilson Farms in Lexington, Massachusetts. I was this morning there, with my son, Andrei, and Daria, one of my two granddaughters. Air was fresh (as after rain) and flowers were looking gorgeous (how else?). So I couldn't resist to try a video.

Family Scenes

- Daria-

- Bianca -

and two smiles of Daria:

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Rouge Café in Rittenhouse Square

Rittenhouse Square looks a bit Parisian, and Rouge Café looks very Parisian.

I came this time to Philadelphia decided to walk at random and just enjoy. The city has a spiritus loci, a ghost of its own, since the beginnings. New buildings appear among old ones; or replacing old ones. The streets remain the same. People change, the streets remain the same, the air remains the same, that air that's special to Philly. Prague is like that. Actually any place is like that: there are some places where it's obvious.

It was now four o'clock in the afternoon. I was near City Hall. As randomly as I was walking, I wanted badly not to miss Rittenhouse Square.

I headed West on Chestnut Street, up to the 18th, where I took left. A great facade after one block, I crossed Sansom Street, another block and I was now in Walnut Street, facing the square.

Rouge was there, and also Devon, as I knew them, with seats outside just across the park. I had my memories from Rouge Café; times when I was coming there and sitting at a table on the sidewalk, sipping a cup of coffee and enjoying the view around.

This time all seats outside were occupied, so I entered and took a place at the bar. They had a wonderful wine, Château La Forêt, a French Pinot Noir. You cannot drink more than half a glass, or you'll get drunk: it's heavy, and it's gorgeous. I finished my half glass slowly, while looking outside through the window, at the alleys in the park. It was the place to start writing a story.

I was trying to imagine a possible story, to be written, or at least to be told. A story starting in the square, or just here at Rouge, with patrons viewing the square through the window. I ordered a bottle of British black beer; I don't think there is another place in America to find such a delicacy: Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, coming here from Yorkshire. It goes well with oysters, or with clams, but I did not have so much time.

A guy was sitting near me at the bar, together with his girlfriend. He was probably in his early forties, very solid, with his head shaved, she was slim, in her early twenties, with a wonderful laugh. They were calling in me the memory of a movie seen long time ago; he was like Jack, tough and possibly mixed in all kind of risky business, she was like Vicky, trying unconsciously to believe dreams had a sense.

Only they were not Jack and Vicky, for a simple reason: that movie had been made in Taiwan, while the two seating near me at the bar were speaking Russian.

My story was beginning to take shape.


Words of the Wise

Love is the Triumph of Imagination over Intelligence

(Read the article in W Post)

Zoon Politikon)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcet

Farrah Fawcet
(February 2, 1947 – June 25, 2009)


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Watergate, Washington Monument and Kennedy Center, viewed from Key Bridge

(Stories from Key Bridge)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Philadelphia: Flag Day Festival on Arch Street

The house of Betsy Ross is there on Arch Street, so it's the natural place for a Flag Day Festival.

I bought there in one of the tents an almanac where I found a curious story, about an old gentleman who had started a business of manufacturing sails. You know, those old times ships were floating a lot on Delaware River. He hoped to get rich this way, only the business was not running well. So he did what all gentlemen who wanted a fortune were doing: he targeted a rich woman and married her.

His wife died after a couple of years. The gentleman got remarried, with another rich woman, who died also very soon.

The gentleman got married again, and this was also a rich woman, who also died soon afterwards.

By now the gentleman was rich enough, so no more in need to get married again.

Well, old stories, who knows whether they are true or not?

There was a lot of fun that day on Arch Street.

Bikes and Bikers

Ice Cream Vendors


Magritte, inspired by Joseph Conrad

- René Magritte: Almayer's Folly -

Kaspar Almayer is a Dutch merchant taken under the wing of the wealthy Captain Lingard. Desirious of one day inheriting Captain Lingard's wealth the young Almayer agrees to marry his adopted Malay child and run Lingard's trading post in Sambir in the jungles of Borneo. The marriage is loveless, Captain Lingard loses much of his fortune searching for a hidden treasure, and Almayer's ventures continually fail-most notably an expansive trading house that no one comes to trade in, which is why it is soon called Almayer's Folly. However a child named Nina is begotten from Almayer and his wife. The rest of the novel concerns Almayer's conflicting desires. His love for his daughter and trying to keep her from the Malayian influence of her mother and Almayer's desire for money and self-redemption take center stage. A Malay prince called Dain enters Sambir. Though Almayer tries to use the prince to help him find the treasure long sought after by Lingard, instead Dain is betrothed to Nina and leaves Sambir with his daughter and his aid but not his blessing. The loss of Nina and potential wealth stuns Almayer and he spends the rest of his days in the empty trading house he built as his sanity slips away (the first novel of Joseph Conrad, Almayer's Folly: a story of an Eastern river - as was summarized in Wikipedia).

And Magritte made an etching of Almayer's Folly. I saw it at Galerie Lareuse in Georgetown. The galerie was closed by the time I passed by; the etching was on display on the window, together with another of Magritte's: The Music Lesson - pretty weird, isn't it? while actually making perfect sense form the logical point of view :).

(Galerie Lareuse)

(René Magritte)


Neda Agha Soltan

An Iranian girl killed by a Basij sniper. The killer was hiding at a rooftop.

The journalist Roger Cohen (NY Times) got this note from an anonymous Iranian student:

I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to be killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow!
I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so that they know we were not just emotional under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children.

Zoon Politikon)

(Iranian Film and Poetry)


Monday, June 22, 2009

A Japanese Poem of Declarative Programming

This time HANAFUBUKI invites us to a walk in the gardens around the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. I captured some images from the video: click here to see the whole, it is a gorgeous art work.

It is incredible how HANAFUBUKI can find the perfect angle for any image. And as images tell us their own story, it is just incredible how unexpected each new image comes, keeping fresh the story as it unfolds.

But this video is more! While walking through the alleys, HANAFUBUKI starts suddenly to recite a poem. Of course, it's Japanese, so for a foreigner is impossible to understand the words.

You don't understand the words, as you don't know Japanese, but you feel a tension there: each part, the surrounding nature, and the unknown words, claim their truth, their right to say their own story, each one. Story of images, story of unknown words from an unknown language.

So, I was intrigued and I asked the author of the video to send me the Japanese text. I considered using an automate translator, to have firstly a rough version in English, then to work on it.

The English version I got from the automated translator was very rough, and I tried to get the sense of the poem, in order to find the better words and rhymes.

It was an experimental poem, starting abruptly with the declaration of eating a hamburger (!), explaining the meaning of a hamburger, and then refining more and more the explanations.

Well, it sounded weird, but a recent discussion with a nephew of mine gave me suddenly the clue.

My nephew has just majored in Computer Science, and his last exam was of Declarative Programming (the theory behind languages like LISP or PROLOG). As I was talking with him by phone about the exam, and as I was remembering about some work done in this field by a friend of mine, I realized that the poem was not at all weird: it was a funny way of playing with the concepts of Declarative Programming!

So, here is my English version:

I’m eating a hamburger,

This food is cooked beef and bread (two slices).

Well, well, what’s bread and what is cooked beef?

Okay, let me explain:

Let’s designate the wheat flour as the raw material,
Inserting tiny grains of salt (don’t you think it’s dense in water?),
After fermenting with the yeast, and baked inside the four,
Crushing an onion in the chopped meat that’s pulled from the cow,
Crumbling an egg in bread, mixing the seasoning,
Arranging in elliptic shape, and burning on frying pans,
This food is cooked beef and bread (two slices).

And let’s go deeper:

Let’s designate the wheat that’s pulled and powder made as raw material,
Inserting tiny grains of sodium chloride (don’t you think it’s dense in that liquid of chemical H20 compound of hydrogen and oxygen?),
After fermenting with the germ of glucose (or the elliptical monad of Ascomycetes), and baked inside the four,
Crushing a green Liliaceae vegetable in the chopped meat that’s pulled from a Mammalian belonging to the artiodactyls,
Crumbling a fetus produced by a female Galinacee in glutamic acid sodium, mixing the seasoning,
Arranging in elliptic shape, and burning it on frying pans,
This food is cooked beef and bread (two slices).

And let’s go even deeper:

No, please, no, thanks, I’ve got it:

You’re eating a hamburger.

Passing from the English version to a Romanian one was now easy, here you go:

Mananc un hamburger

Mancarea asta-i vita tocata-n doua felii de paine.

(Bine, dar ce e painea? si vita tocata ce-i?)

Pai, definim faina de grau ca materie prima,
Inseram un pic de sare, devine densa-n apa putina,
Apoi o fermentam cu drojdie de bere, si-o coacem in cuptor, usor,
Zdrobim o ceapa-n carnea tocata
ce e extrasa dintr-o vaca,
Batjocorim un ou, zdrente il facem si-l bagam in paine,
amestecam totul sa-i dam un gust anume,
Apoi ii dam o forma eliptica si-o frigem la tigaie, si iese o minune,
Mancarea asta-i vita tocata-n doua felii de paine.

(dar putem merge mai adanc)

Definim graul smuls din ogor si pulverizat ca materie prima,
Inseram un pic de clorura de sodiu, devine densa in compusul de duzina
(lichidul H2O,
alcatuit din hidrogen si oxigen, dar fara rima)
Apoi o fermentam cu germeni de glucoza (sau, daca vreti, cu monada eliptica a
lui Ascomycetes), si-o coacem in cuptor, usor,
Zdrobim o Violacee verde-n carnea tocata
ce e extrasa dintr-un mamifer din
specia artiodactila, o spetza minunata,
Batjocorim un fetus de femela de galinacee, zdrente-l facem, si-l bagam in acid glutamidic,
amestecam totul sa-i dam un gust fatidic,
Apoi ii dam o forma eliptica si-o frigem la tigaie, si iese o minune,
Mancarea asta-i vita tocata-n doua felii de paine.

(Si putem merge mai adanc...)

Nu, nu, sarac de mine, acum am inteles:

Mananci un hamburger.

(The Thousand faces of HANAFUBUKI)


Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Story

I was born in France and when I was three years old, my mother moved back to her country, Romania, and took me with her. My father had separated from us since my birth.

We came to Romania by ship, traversing the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Once in Romania, it took me six months to forget all French words. One single word remained in my memory: bateau. Why only this one? I don't know why.

Later my mother found a man who felt in love for her and for me and who became the father that raised me.

And years passed; sometimes I was thinking at the other one, the missing father. It is a long story, of dreams, and love, and hate, and deception, and finally of finding my two step-sisters, who gave me their love. Three people, they and I, who over passed a painful past.

I found in today's NY Times this story, told by Jason Burnett, a telecommunications engineer living in Alexandria, Virginia:

Late last year, while resting in my hotel room on a business trip to India, I saw my father being interviewed on CNN International; this was the first time I had seen him or heard his voice in 27 years.

The coincidence intrigued me enough to attempt to contact him and after I returned to the States, I spent the next few days trying various combinations of e-mail addresses until I finally hit upon the right one, and received a response. Before I knew it, we had set a date in February to meet. I was about to find myself face to face with a man who was more influential in his absence than he could have been in his presence.

My mother struggled to raise my younger brother and me on her own; in one way or another we always got by without our father. We had what we needed. We went to great schools. We spent the summers with our grandparents. We were good children, relatively speaking. My mother always let me think I was the man of the house, but everyone else knew differently. When I was asked by a guest if I was the “man of the house” my brother piped up and said, “The man of this house is a woman.” She was and she was all we had, and my brother and I knew it. And though she did what she could to make up for the absence of a father, for me, the absence was inescapable.

As a child, I waited for my father to contact me; as a teenager, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. So as an adult I wanted closure. I wasn’t interested in retribution or making him feel sorry for leaving because somehow I knew he wasn’t sorry at all.

I knew as well that I was not in search of a “Father” or seeking advice or absolution. I surely didn’t expect him to fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness at the sight of his long-slighted son. Nor did I expect him to act any differently than he did.

As the date for our meeting neared, I tried to remember the endless list of questions that, as a boy, I promised myself I would ask him if I ever had the chance. But the truth was that the answers to these questions weren’t important to me anymore. I had either answered them for myself or asked them of others.

I realized, though, that I wanted to find the man — not the mythical figure my father had become over the years. I had heard so many fantastic stories and I didn’t know what to believe: tales of sailing solo across oceans, thwarting a band of pirates aboard his small boat in the Strait of Malacca, doing relief work in Somalia, writing a screenplay for David Bowie. I needed to know who this guy really was.

We met in a hotel lobby. After we dispatched with the initial pleasantries, we headed straight for the bar. Over drinks and dinner, we nervously chatted about the past 27 years. The conversation focused on the superficial similarities that a father and son might share. Still, the mundane chitchat, which most fathers and sons must take for granted, was, in hindsight, what I really wanted.

And so it went for the weekend. I asked questions, he answered. I listened to him talk about previous marriages and relationships, other children he’d fathered, his feelings for my mother — things he wasn’t very comfortable talking about. I began to see the mythical character as a man. I learned that he is as fragile as he was powerful in a young son’s eyes. Toward the end he asked if I would call him Dad; I cannot. But now that I know more about him, we can move forward.

I am still digesting our reunion and will be for quite some time. While he is no longer this mythical figure in my life, he is who he is and I am who I am, partly because of his absence. Already, though, I feel relieved and free to move forward.

I have always wanted to be a father and a husband. I want to be there for those who count on me and I want to be counted on. I have made a good life for myself in the suburbs of Washington. I am married and still very close to my brother and our mother. While I am hopeful that my new relationship with my father is a lasting one, I learned the closure that I needed comes from relationships that I had all along.


And the father of this man had the courage and honesty to tell the same story, from his point of view, here it is:

There was a water-stained photograph, faded from years of tropical heat, of my 10-year-old son and me as we walked away down the pier toward my sailboat. I had my arm around his shoulders and his arm was around my waist; there was a lot of love in that picture. Permanently framed in the boat, the photo captured that sad moment — the last time I was to see my son for 27 years.

I met him again in a crowded hotel lobby in New York City. We had agreed to meet, to test the waters. A son was now ready to find out who his father was, a father wanted to know how his son turned out. I heard a man’s voice behind me and I knew it was him.

There are no guidebooks on how to prepare for that first awkward meeting. There is no Web site that will tell a reappearing father what to expect or how to act when he and his son meet for the first time since his childhood. And what about those crucial first words? “Hey, son, how are you?” “Long time, no see.” Or: “I’m sorry, son. It was not your fault.” It is a moment that a father, possibly defensive, and a son, probably resentful, have played out in their minds for years. We had to tread carefully.

There are millions of absent fathers; there are at least that many children out there who are wondering who their fathers are. Barack Obama recalled in “Dreams From My Father” that when he was small, his father just vanished. “It was into my father’s image ... that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself,” he wrote. When Mr. Obama was told that his father had died, he said, “I felt no pain, only the vague sense of an opportunity lost.”

My son was not going to miss his opportunity. I had tried to make contact a few years earlier but it was not the right time. His best friend had just lost his brother to a roadside bomb in Iraq. But the hours he spent helping his friend try to make sense of what had happened got him to thinking. “I realized it can all end so suddenly,” he told me later. “There were some things I realized I wanted to get done and one of them was to know who my father was.” That death and my previous unanswered attempt to make contact were the forces that caused him to make his own move. He greeted me with a firm handshake and a strong voice. But it was not until later that I recognized him as my onetime 10-year-old buddy.

So that first evening, we met as strangers. Our wives were present, necessary buttresses for this delicate moment. He spoke first: “I recognize you from the white hair.”

“Yeah, like a beacon in a fog-bound channel,” I said.

He had once seen me on CNN in a hotel in India and thought, “Jeez, that’s my father.” But he had already known I existed, for his mother often said, in a fit of pique I would imagine, “You’re just like your father!” The first he knew I was still among the living was when he noticed a book with my name on it on a table in Barnes & Noble, and he wondered if the author was his old man. He saw the photo on the jacket and he knew. When he read a reference to himself in the book it was then that he realized that he had never been forgotten.

The evening was strained but friendly enough that we agreed to meet again the next day in Central Park. Our wives walked behind us as he and I spoke about his work, about mine. His wife said, “Look, they even walk the same way,” and indeed I am told our mannerisms, the way we move our hands when we speak, even our voices are similar.

“Why did you leave?” he asked me suddenly, a question I had expected, but still had some trouble answering. I had come from a dysfunctional family, exiled to boarding schools at a punishingly early age, and instead of going to college, I bolted down to the Brooklyn docks and signed on a merchant ship. I had not been groomed to know much about the obligations of a dad. As Mr. Obama has said, fathers often “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”

“I thought of myself as a seaman,” I said. “It was not your mother and it was not you, I just had no sense of responsibility. I just dropped out, sailed away. I’m sorry... You must still be very angry, have a lot of resentment.”

“I got over that years ago,” he said. “Maybe some resentment. You know I don’t need a father now, something I didn’t have; I only wanted to know who you were.”

Late at night in the apartment of my sister, whom he had also not seen since he was a child, he asked other questions. About other marriages, about other children, and I bared all. There was no reason to lie, no reason to hold back. I wanted him to judge me. His condemnation would free me of my new responsibilities. His forgiveness might allow me to try to become the father I never was. It was his call. After my wife had gone to bed, I answered all his questions, in detail. Indeed, he and his wife now know more about me than my own wife, more than any living person. And my son was, on that night, still a stranger.

There must be so many absent fathers, burdened with guilt, regret, defiance and defensiveness, who like me wonder who their sons are now that they are grown men. And if they consider making that first move, they surely speculate about that first meeting: could it be anything but confrontation, his anger, his sorrow, his pain? These things do not always turn out well.

It is too late to pick up where we left off so many years ago and I certainly won’t make the mistake of now acting like a dad. But there is a chance we might at least become friends, even one day feel the love we had for each other when he was a little boy. The relationship is still fragile but we are in contact; I think that we will slowly, cautiously build something lasting. There is some hope. On our last evening together, just before I had to return to Europe, we faced each other awkwardly and then hugged. Not a hail-fellow-well-met hug, but a serious bloodline hug, and I felt for the first time in 27 years something I had forgotten existed.

It looks as if my boy turned out O.K. The credit goes to his mom. He is a sort of a geek working on fiber-optic technology. He’s a good-looking kid and I admire him not only for what he has overcome and become without the benefit of a father, but also for his courage to contact his grateful dad.

Philadelphia, 3rd Street: A Lullaby of Loneliness

An afternoon of any given Saturday: I'm walking on the 3rd Street in Philly, my mood is a bit sad; just dreaming at a lullaby, like one of those by Aaron English: a lullaby of loneliness.

You know the lyrics, isn't it? Here you go, a bit adapted:

I’m alone with what’s left of my life while an indifferent sun cuts the afternoon like a knife,
I am starved as the sight of the clouds: they’re the pulse in the rhythm of the hours,
turned to years,
but the afternoon never ends; it heals me, it opens the wounds again

and any promise of sunset is so far away.

But don't get me wrong, 3rd Street is fabulous. And my mood is just a bit sad, not that much:)


Saturday, June 20, 2009

NY Times: Iran’s Tensions, Foreshadowed in Its Cinema

A scene from A Taste of Cherry, the movie of Abbas Kiarostami

A. O. Scott has this article in today's NY Times:

From the early 1990s until the middle of this decade, the work of Iranian filmmakers caught the attention of critics, cinephiles and festival juries around the globe as Iran’s historically rich movie culture, largely dormant during the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq, entered a remarkable period of rejuvenation. Two directors in particular, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, earned worldwide renown for their elusive, self-reflexive and lyrical films about Iranian life.

Mr. Kiarostami’s trio of films about the provincial town of Koker before and after a devastating earthquake — Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Life and Nothing More (1991) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) — are at once richly philosophical meditations on memory, experience and the nature of cinema, and works of social exploration in the neo-realist tradition.

Mr. Makhmalbaf’s films are, in their own way, both highly self-conscious about their formal status as narrative artifacts and committed to investigating some of the thornier realities of Iranian life. In the current context, his 1996 film A Moment of Innocence may be especially relevant, since it is a multilayered dramatic essay on militancy and reconciliation, exploring the consequences of a violent incident from Mr. Makhmalbaf’s revolutionary youth.

(Not coincidentally, Mr. Makhmalbaf is now one of the principal spokesmen for Mir Hussein Moussavi, the former prime minister and presidential candidate whose officially declared and widely doubted defeat in elections last week galvanized the current protests.)

The range of themes these filmmakers and their colleagues were able to explore, and the kinds of images they could use, were limited by a strict but not entirely inflexible system of censorship. Political issues were dealt with indirectly, and even greater circumspection was necessary in addressing anything related to sexuality or the lives of women. These restrictions resulted in a series of remarkable films about children and also — because of taboos on how men and women could be shown interacting indoors — in a cinematography of open-air natural landscapes and vividly evoked urban neighborhoods.

The flowering of Iranian cinema in the 1990s was itself evidence of a cultural and political thaw, a tentative premonition of the current demand for change. As minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1989 to 1992, Mohammed Khatami encouraged the expansion of film production, and his election to the presidency in 1997 (in an unexpected landslide) came less than a week after Mr. Kiarostami shared the Palme d’Or in Cannes for Taste of Cherry.

As nearly contemporaneous news events — and in retrospect today — those two victories symbolized the possibility of a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan Iran, or at least the partial ascendance of more outward-looking and conciliatory forces within Iranian society. The reality turned out to be much more ambiguous, as Mr. Khatami’s tenure in office was marked more by the frustration of reformist aspirations than by their fulfillment.

But in the eight years between his election and that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian cinema, with and without official sanction, continued to fructify. Younger filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, a protégé of Mr. Kiarostami’s, and Mr. Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira came to prominence with work that was often more directly critical of Iranian social conditions than that of their precursors. The emphasis shifted from the countryside to the city, from children to women, war veterans, refugees and the poor, and formal self-consciousness was balanced by an increasingly uncompromising sense of realism.

No national cinema is easily summarized, and movies are always an imperfect window on the world. But to watch, say, The Apple (1998), Ms. Makhmalbaf’s first film; The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006) by Mr. Panahi; the more tenderly sentimental films of Majid Majidi (including The Color of Paradise and Baran); and Bahman Ghobadi’s tough, poetic films about Kurdistan — and this is a very partial list — is to encounter images and stories that add depth and meaning to the raw videos and tweets of recent weeks. You see class divisions, the cruelty of the state, the oppression of women and their ways of resisting it, traditions of generosity and hospitality, and above all a passion for argument.

A typical Iranian film can feel like one long series of family quarrels — a clatter of competing opinions and interests that is at once contentious and courteous, violent and fraternal, but that never seems to end. Democracy can feel that way, too, and in that respect the Iranian cinema of recent years offers a foreshadowing of what is happening now, beyond the screen.

(Iranian Film and Poetry)


Christ Church in Philadelphia

The Christ Church in Philadelphia carries the same aristocratic air that is the marque of the city: the cathedral of a community of people feeling independent from the very beginning, long before the Independence War.

I visited the church, walking slowly and staring at all those signs of great history: there is certainly greatness there, but also grace. It is monumental, yet friendly; it is friendly, yet keeping its class.

I went then out in the garden, where I found a good old friend of mine. I meet him each time I come to Philly.

We start talking, without haste, as we do each time, putting in good order our past stories.

This time it happened that I made a new friend, a musician playing Baroque music at cimbalom; a nice fellow who taught me a word of wisdom (as I was complaining of heavy rain): there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thousands of Years Away from Dinozaurs

We are following what's in Tehran these days; what was in Moldova a couple of months ago; a new generation living in the Internet era, thousands and thousands of years away from dinosaurs.

(The videos of blwolf)


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Moebius Tangent

Gary Weisman - Moebius Tangent

(Principle Gallery)


A totally unexpected replica to the last scene from Tarkovsky's Stalker. It is not irreverent. It is fresh, it is unexpected, not at all irreverent. This 1981111 has genius, clearly, genius, and (like Mattie, another young constructor of small gems) lives in the world of great moviemakers, lives and thinks in the universe of great scenes of great movies, and builds fresh replicas.

(The videos of blwolf)


Intalniri neasteptate cu Romani: Dimitrie Cantemir

Ma aflam in sala de spectacole a Galeriei de Arta Orientala Freer and Sackler din Washington, la serata muzicala organizata pentru omagierea printului Dimitrie Cantemir.

Sala era plina. Pe scena instrumentele isi asteptau interpretii. Erau cateva instrumente din epoca barocului: un clavecin, o viola da gamba, un flaut, o violina d'amore. O tamburina facea legatura intre Apus si Orient. Si cateva instrumente traditionale turcesti despre care nu stiusem nimic pana atunci. Progamul de sala le descria amanuntit.

Era un tandur, un soi de lauta: citeam ca printul Cantemir fusese un virtuoz al tandurului. Era apoi un kemençe: o vioara minuscula in forma de para, pe care (dupa cum aveam sa vad in cursul serii) interpretul o sprijinea in palma mainii drepte si intr-un deget, manuind arcusul cu mana stanga. Un instrument mostenind lira bizantina, raspandit in insulele grecesti si in Asia Mica, variante ale acestui kemençe fiind folosite in Iran si in tarile arabe, pana in Maroc.

Si in sfarsit tobele turcesti: kudüm.

Au aparut muzicantii: o formatie camerala din California (Lux Musica, aflata sub conducerea etno-muzicologului Linda Burman-Hall, clavecinista cu un repertoriu intinzandu-se dela misticul medieval Hildegard von Bingen pana la compozitori contemporani din Indonezia. Alaturi de Lux Musica, doi artisti din Turcia, interpreti de muzica traditionala otomana (Neva Özgen la kemençe si Murat Aydemir la tandur).

Si concertul a inceput cu o sarba!

M-am intalnit prima data cu un text al lui Cantemir intr-o chrestomatie de literatura romana: erau cateva pagini din Descrierea Moldovei. Eram in liceu, si eram interesat de cultura romana veche; citisem in aceeasi chrestomatie pagini ale unor autori romani din aceeasi epoca, cronicari sau oameni ai bisericii; am simtit diferenta: Cantemir avea un stil elegant, un sistem de valori de nivel european. Acele naivitati, stangacii, intotdeauna fermecatoare, din textele romanesti vechi erau la el inexistente. Nu intamplator Edward Gibbon avea sa mearga in a sa Istorie a Imperiului Roman pe aceeasi sistema arhitectonica pe care Cantemir isi intemeiase demersul in studiul Istoriei Imperiului Otoman.

Cantemir a fost extraordinar in toate intreprinderile lui de cultura. A creat sistemul de notatie muzicala turca. A tradus textele liturgice din greaca in rusa. A scris primul roman romanesc, fabuloasa Istorie Hieroglifica. Hronicul vechimii moldo-vlahilor a fost primul tratat istoric care ii considera pe romani in totalitatea lor. Tratatul sau filosofic (Galceava inteleptului cu lumea), scris in romana si greaca, a fost tradus imediat in araba. Istoria Imperului Otoman a fost tiparita prima data la Londra. Harta Modovei, facuta de el, a fost tiparita in Olanda. Un om care se simtea la el acasa in orice loc al Europei, la Constantinopol sau la Iasi, la Petersburg sau la Berlin.

Ma gandeam la toate acestea, in vreme ce mica orchestra incepuse alta sarba!

Intregul program era dedicat memoriei lui Cantemir:

- vechi dansuri romanesti, in cinstea originii moldovene a lui Cantemir
- compozitii muzicale al caror autor era chiar printul
- muzica contemporana turca de camera dedicata lui Cantemir
- muzica baroca alla turca din perioada in care a trait Cantemir (Lully, Ben Johnson, Marin Marais, Thomas Shaw, John Playford)
- improvizatii pentru kemençe

Planuisem de mult sa vin la concert. O problema aparuse insa in dimineata zieli: radioul, televiziunea si Internetul se intrecusera in a anunta ca seara va fi o furtuna naprasnica. Iar in cursul zilei pe cer se tot adunasera nori uriasi. Mi-am luat curajul (si umbrela) si am pornit. Pana la urma furtuna avea sa inceapa dupa ce m-am intors acasa, pe la miezul noptii.

Eram acum la concert si mi se parea ca visez, atat era de frumos. Mi-as fi dorit sa nu se mai termine. Improvizatiile la kemençe erau superbe. Fireste ca si improvizatiile acestea purtau un nume specific, taksim. Si, ca orice taksim care se respecta, erau de doua feluri: bestenigar taksim, contemporane cu Cantemir, si beraber taksim, un gen de etno-jazz creat de un muzician turc celebru, Ihsan Özgen (a carui fiica este chiar Neva Özgen).

Aceste taksim erau prezentate in dialog cu compozitiile lui Cantemir, care purtau si ele un nume specific: pesrav. Fiecare pesrav avea doua parti: un andante (makam), urmat de un allegro (usul).

Extraordinara era comunicarea dintre artisti pe scena. Disciplina severa a unei formatii camerale era aici insotita de o empatie reciproca: parca erau toti supusi unei vraji, fiecare isi incepea partea proprie cu un zambet catre ceilalti. Aveai senzatia ca muzica se crea in momentul acelea, pe scena. Iar Neva Özgen era printesa tanara a unei lumi de basm; parea ca toate celelalte instrumente muzicale aveau ca singura menire sa o puna pe ea in valoare!

Serata a durat vreo doua ore. Dimitrie Cantemir: personalitate extraordinara a culturii turce, a culturii ruse, a culturii romane, un roman traitor in universal.

Ma gandeam in drumul inapoi spre casa, cate nemernicii mi-a fost dat sa citesc in ultimii ani: un fanfaron care declara cu emfaza ca iese din sala atunci cand se recita Eminescu (ma intreb pentru ce mai are neobrazarea sa vorbeasca in romaneste); un alt fanfaron care cheltuieste tone de energie vocala ca sa demonstreze ca Brancusi nu are nimic de a face cu arta romaneasca; si multi alti fanfaroni gata sa desfiinteze orice personalitate romaneasca. Concertul la care asistasem era un raspuns discret si frumos. Ca si Andantele lui Yalçin Tura, carturarul turc indragostit de muzica lui Cantemir.

(Intalniri neasteptate cu Romani)


Monday, June 15, 2009

Fareed Zakaria: The Capitalist Manifesto

Greed is good (to a point). Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

A specter is haunting the world—the return of capitalism. Over the past six months, politicians, businessmen and pundits have been convinced that we are in the midst of a crisis of capitalism that will require a massive transformation and years of pain to fix. Nothing will ever be the same again. Another ideological god has failed, the dean of financial commentators, Martin Wolf, wrote in the Financial Times. Companies will fundamentally reset the way they work, said the CEO of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt. Capitalism will be different, said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

No economic system ever remains unchanged, of course, and certainly not after a deep financial collapse and a broad global recession. But over the past few months, even though we've had an imperfect stimulus package, nationalized no banks and undergone no grand reinvention of capitalism, the sense of panic seems to be easing. Perhaps this is a mirage—or perhaps the measures taken by states around the world, chiefly the U.S. government, have restored normalcy. Every expert has a critique of specific policies, but over time we might see that faced with the decision to underreact or overreact, most governments chose the latter. That choice might produce new problems in due course—a topic for another essay—but it appears to have averted a systemic breakdown.

There is still a long road ahead. There will be many more bankruptcies. Banks will have to slowly earn their way out of their problems or die. Consumers will save more before they start spending again. Mountains of debt will have to be reduced. American capitalism is being rebalanced, reregulated and thus restored. In doing so it will have to face up to long-neglected problems, if this is to lead to a true recovery, not just a brief reprieve.

Many experts are convinced that the situation cannot improve yet because their own sweeping solutions to the problem have not been implemented. Most of us want to see more punishment inflicted, particularly on America's bankers. Deep down we all have a Puritan belief that unless they suffer a good dose of pain, they will not truly repent. In fact, there has been much pain, especially in the financial industry, where tens of thousands of jobs, at all levels, have been lost. But fundamentally, markets are not about morality. They are large, complex systems, and if things get stable enough, they move on.

Consider our track record over the past 20 years, starting with the stock-market crash of 1987, when on Oct. 19 the Dow Jones lost 23 percent, the largest one-day loss in its history. The legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He wrote that he just hoped that the coming recession wouldn't prove as painful as the Great Depression. It turned out to be a blip on the way to an even bigger, longer boom. Then there was the 1997 East Asian crisis, during the depths of which Paul Krugman wrote in a Fortune cover essay, Never in the course of economic events—not even in the early years of the Depression—has so large a part of the world economy experienced so devastating a fall from grace. He went on to argue that if Asian countries did not adopt his radical strategy—currency controls—we could be looking at?.?.?.?the kind of slump that 60 years ago devastated societies, destabilized governments, and eventually led to war. Only one Asian country instituted currency controls, and partial ones at that. All rebounded within two years.

Each crisis convinced observers that it signaled the end of some new, dangerous feature of the economic landscape. But often that novelty accelerated in the years that followed. The 1987 crash was said to be the product of computer trading, which has, of course, expanded dramatically since then. The East Asian crisis was meant to end the happy talk about emerging markets, which are now at the center of world growth. The collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998—which then–Treasury secretary Robert Rubin described as the worst financial crisis in 50 years — was meant to be the end of hedge funds, which then massively expanded. The technology bubble's bursting in 2000 was supposed to put an end to the dreams of oddball Internet startups. Goodbye, Pets.com; hello, Twitter. Now we hear that this crisis is the end of derivatives. Let's see. Robert Shiller, one of the few who predicted this crash almost exactly—and the dotcom bust as well—argues that in fact we need more derivatives to make markets more stable.

A few years from now, strange as it may sound, we might all find that we are hungry for more capitalism, not less. An economic crisis slows growth, and when countries need growth, they turn to markets. After the Mexican and East Asian currency crises—which were far more painful in those countries than the current downturn has been in America—we saw the pace of market-oriented reform speed up. If, in the years ahead, the American consumer remains reluctant to spend, if federal and state governments groan under their debt loads, if government-owned companies remain expensive burdens, then private-sector activity will become the only path to create jobs. The simple truth is that with all its flaws, capitalism remains the most productive economic engine we have yet invented. Like Churchill's line about democracy, it is the worst of all economic systems, except for the others. Its chief vindication today has come halfway across the world, in countries like China and India, which have been able to grow and pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty by supporting markets and free trade. Last month India held elections during the worst of this crisis. Its powerful left-wing parties campaigned against liberalization and got their worst drubbing at the polls in 40 years.

Capitalism means growth, but also instability. The system is dynamic and inherently prone to crashes that cause great damage along the way. For about 90 years, we have been trying to regulate the system to stabilize it while still preserving its energy. We are at the start of another set of these efforts. In undertaking them, it is important to keep in mind what exactly went wrong. What we are experiencing is not a crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis of finance, of democracy, of globalization and ultimately of ethics.

Capitalism messed up, the British tycoon Martin Sorrell wrote recently, or, to be more precise, capitalists did. Actually, that's not true. Finance screwed up, or to be more precise, financiers did. In June 2007, when the financial crisis began, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, IBM, Nike, Wal-Mart and Microsoft were all running their companies with strong balance sheets and sensible business models. Major American corporations were highly profitable, and they were spending prudently, holding on to cash to build a cushion for a downturn. For that reason, many of them have been able to weather the storm remarkably well. Finance and anything finance-related—like real estate—is another story.

Finance has a history of messing up, from the Dutch tulip bubble in 1637 to now. The proximate causes of these busts have been varied, but follow a strikingly similar path. In calm times, political stability, economic growth and technological innovation all encourage an atmosphere of easy money and new forms of credit. Cheap credit causes greed, miscalculation and eventually ruin. President Martin Van Buren described the economic crisis of 1837 in Britain and America thusly: Two nations, the most commercial in the world, enjoying but recently the highest degree of apparent prosperity and maintaining with each other the closest relations, are suddenly?.?.?.?plunged into a state of embarrassment and distress. In both countries we have witnessed the same [expansion] of paper money and other facilities of credit; the same spirit of speculation?.?.?.?the same overwhelming catastrophe. Obama could put that on his teleprompter today.

Many of the regulatory reforms that people in government are talking about now seem sensible and smart. Banks that are too large to fail should also be too large be leveraged at 30 to 1. The incentives for executives within banks are skewed toward reckless risk-taking with other people's money. (Heads they win, tails they break even, is how Barney Frank describes the current setup.) Derivatives need to be better controlled. To call banks casinos, as is often done, is actually unfair to casinos, which are required to hold certain levels of capital because they must be able to cash in a customer's chips. Banks have not been required to do that for their key derivatives contract, credit default swaps.

Yet at the same time, we should proceed cautiously on massive new regulations. Many rules put in place in the 1930s still look smart; the problem is that over the past 15 years they were dismantled, or conscious decisions were made not to update them. Keep in mind that the one advanced industrial country where the banking system has weathered the storm superbly is Canada, which just kept the old rules in place, requiring banks to hold higher amounts of capital to offset their liabilities and to maintain lower levels of leverage. A few simple safeguards, and the whole system survived a massive storm.

The simplest safeguard American regulators have had, of course, is the interest rate on credit. In responding to almost every crisis in the past 15 years, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan always had the same solution: cut rates and ease up on money. In 1998, when Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, he suddenly and dramatically slashed rates, even though the economy was roaring along at 6 percent growth. In late 1999, buying into fears about Y2K, he swamped the markets with liquidity. (One effect: between November 1998 and February 2000, when rates finally rose, the NASDAQ jumped almost 250 percent, increasing in value by more than $3 trillion.) And finally, when the technology bubble burst and 9/11 hit, Greenspan again lowered rates and kept them low, this time inflating a massive housing bubble.

Greenspan behaved like most American political leaders over the past two decades—he chose the easy way out of a hard situation. William McChesney Martin, the great Fed chairman of the 1950s and 1960s, once said that his job was to take the punch bowl away just as the party had begun. No one wants to do that in America anymore—not the Fed chairman, not the regulators, not Congress and not the president.

Government actions should be countercyclical—that is, they should work to slow down growth. So, in boom times, the Fed would raise rates and require banks to have higher capital and lower leverage. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would start worrying about too much easy credit, raise standards for loans and disqualify buyers unlikely to be able to afford houses. Banks would be urged to slow down the supply of credit cards and other credit instruments. In fact, this is exactly how the governments of China and India behaved in 2007, when their economies were booming. At the peak, consumption in India actually declined as a percentage of GDP.

In the United States, the opposite happened: consumption surged from 67 percent to 73 percent of GDP. Presidents and congressmen extolled the virtues of homeownership for everyone. Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to extend more loans. Regulators eased up on banks, and the Fed kept rates low. And the public cheered this pandering at every step.

Since Ronald Reagan's presidency, Americans have consumed more than we produced and have made up the difference by borrowing. This is true of individuals but, far more dangerously, of governments at every level. Government debt in America, especially when entitlements and state pension commitments are included, is terrifying. And yet no one has tried seriously to close the gap, which can be done only by (1) raising taxes or (2) cutting expenditures. Any sensible proposal will have to feature both prominently.

This is the disease of modern democracy: the system cannot impose any short-term pain for long-term gain. For 20 years, most serious structural problems—Social Security, health care, immigration—have been kicked down the road. And while the problem is acute in America, Europe and Japan face many of the same difficulties. Right now, the U.S. government's boldness is laudable, but it is being bold in spending money. In a few years, when the bills come due, and Congress must enact major spending cuts as well as raise taxes (and not just on the rich), that's when we will see if things have changed.

In reality, the problem goes well beyond Washington. It also goes beyond bad bankers, lax regulators and pandering politicians. The global financial system has been crashing more frequently over the past 30 years than in any comparable period in history. On the face of it, this suggests that we're screwing up, when in fact what is happening is more complex. The problems that have developed over the past decades are not simply the products of failures. They could as easily be described as the products of success.

Here's why we got to where we are. Since the late 1980s, the world has been moving toward a extraordinary degree of political stability. The end of the Cold War has ushered in a period with no major military competition among the world's great powers—something virtually unprecedented in modern history. It has meant the winding down of most of the proxy and civil wars, insurgencies and guerrilla actions that dotted the Cold War landscape. Even given the bloodshed in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, the number of people dying as a result of political violence of any kind has dropped steeply over the past three decades.

Then there is the end of inflation. In the 1970s, dozens of countries suffered hyperinflation, which destroyed the middle class, destabilized societies and led to political upheaval. Since then, central banks have become very good at taming the monster, and by 2007 the number of countries with high inflation had dwindled to a handful. Only one, Zimbabwe, had hyperinflation.

Add to this the information and Internet revolutions, and you have a series of historical changes that have produced a single global system, far more integrated and faster-moving than ever before. The results speak for themselves. Over the past quarter century, the global economy has doubled every 10 years, going from $31 trillion in 1999 to $62 trillion in 2008. Recessions have become tamer than ever before, averaging eight months rather than two years. More than 400 million people across Asia have been lifted out of poverty. Between 2003 and 2007, average income worldwide grew at a faster rate (3.1 percent) than in any previous period in recorded human history. In 2006 and 2007—the peak years of the boom—124 countries around the world grew at 4 percent a year or more, about four times as many as 25 years earlier.

Many of these countries had more cash than they knew what to do with. China sits on a war chest of more than $2 trillion, while eight other emerging-market nations have reserves of more than $100 billion. They've all looked to the safest investment they could imagine—U.S. government debt. In buying so much debt, they drove down the interest rate Washington had to offer, which in turn made credit in America cheap. So the effect of all this money sloshing around the world was to subsidize Americans in their favorite activity: shopping. But it affected other Western countries as well, from Spain to Ireland, where consumers and governments loaded themselves up with debt.

Good times always make people complacent. As the cost of capital sank over the past few years, people became increasingly foolish. The world economy had become the equivalent of a race car—faster and more complex than any vehicle anyone had ever seen. But it turned out that no one had driven a car like this before, and no one really knew how. So it crashed.

The real problem is that we're still driving this car. The global economy remains highly complex, interconnected and im-balanced. The Chinese still pile up surpluses and need to put them somewhere. Washington and Beijing will have to work hard to slowly stabilize their mutual dependence so that the system is not being set up for another crash.

More broadly, the fundamental crisis we face is of globalization itself. We have globalized the economies of nations. Trade, travel and tourism are bringing people together. Technology has created worldwide supply chains, companies and customers. But our politics remains resolutely national. This tension is at the heart of the many crashes of this era—a mismatch between interconnected economies that are producing global problems but no matching political process that can effect global solutions. Without better international coordination, there will be more crashes, and eventually there may be a retreat from globalization toward the safety—and slow growth—of protected national economies.

Throughout this essay, I have avoided treating this economic crisis as a grand morality play—a war between good and evil in which demon bankers destroyed all that is good and true about our socie-ties. Complex historical events can rarely be reduced to something so simple. But we are suffering from a moral crisis, too, one that may lie at the heart of our problems.

Most of what happened over the past decade across the world was legal. Bankers did what they were allowed to do under the law. Politicians did what they thought the system asked of them. Bureaucrats were not exchanging cash for favors. But very few people acted responsibly, honorably or nobly (the very word sounds odd today). This might sound like a small point, but it is not. No system—capitalism, socialism, whatever—can work without a sense of ethics and values at its core. No matter what reforms we put in place, without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will prove inadequate. We will never know where the next bubble will form, what the next innovations will look like and where excesses will build up. But we can ask that people steer themselves and their institutions with a greater reliance on a moral compass.

One of the great shifts taking place in American society has been away from the old guild system of self-regulation. Once upon a time, law, medicine and accounting viewed themselves as private-sector participants with public responsibilities. Lawyers are still called officers of the court. And historically they acted with that sense of stewardship in mind, thinking of what was appropriate for the whole system and not simply for their firm. That meant advising their clients against time-consuming litigation or mindless mergers. Elihu Root, a leader of the New York bar in the late 19th century, once said, About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.

It's not just the law that has changed; so have all the professions. Ever since the 1930s, accountants have been given a unique trust. Who audits you? asked Sen. Alben Barkley during a 1933 committee hearing. Our conscience, replied Arthur Carter, the head of a large accounting firm. But by 2002 The Wall Street Journal was describing a different world, in which accountants had gone from watchdogs to lapdogs, telling clients whatever they wanted to hear. Bankers similarly once saw themselves as being stewards of capital, responsible to their many constituents and embodying trust. But over the past few decades, they too became obsessed with profits and the short term, uncertain about their own future and that of their company. The most recent example of this phenomenon has been at the rating agencies, which were generating fees that were too lucrative to be exacting in their judgments about their clients' products.

None of this has happened because businesspeople have suddenly become more immoral. It is part of the opening up and growing competitiveness of the business world. Many of the old banks and law firms operated as monopolies or cartels. They could afford to take the long view. They were also run by a WASP elite secure in its privilege. The members of today's meritocratic elite are more anxious and insecure. They know that they are being judged quarter by quarter.

The failure of self-regulation over the past 20 years—in investment banking, accounting, rating agencies—has led inevitably to the rise of greater government regulation. This marks an important change in the Anglo-American world, away from informal rules often enforced by private actors toward the more formal bureaucratic system common in continental Europe. Perhaps the state should not set the pay of the private sector. But surely CEOs should exercise some judgment about their own compensation, and tie it far more closely to the long-term health of the company. It will still be possible to get very rich—Warren Buffett, after all, draws a salary of only $100,000.

There's a need for greater self-regulation not simply on Wall Street but also on Pennsylvania Avenue. We get exercised about the immorality of politicians when they're caught in sex scandals. Meanwhile they triple the national debt, enrich their lobbyist friends and write tax loopholes for specific corporations—all perfectly legal—and we regard this as normal. The revolving door between Washington government offices and lobbying firms is so lucrative and so established that anyone pointing out that it is—at base—institutionalized corruption is seen as baying at the moon. Not everything is written down, and not everything that is legally permissible is ethical. Who was the last ex-president to refuse to take a vast donation for his library from a foreign government that he had helped when in office?

We are in the midst of a vast crisis, and there is enough blame to go around and many fixes to make, from the international system to national governments to private firms. But at heart, there needs to be a deeper fix within all of us, a simple gut check. If it doesn't feel right, we shouldn't be doing it. That's not going to restore growth or mend globalization or save capitalism, but it might be a small start to sanity.

Zoon Politikon)