Cherry Blossom

I am obsessed. There are two ideas that have obsessed my time and energy these days. They are not new. I have had them for quite some time. But what brought them to blossom was my recent trip to the USA, my participation in a seminar on liberty and my ever growing conviction that the Americans are right – what you do is what you are.

This happened in the season of the cherry blossom. Washington D.C.’s prime time for love confessions. I knew about the cherry blossoms from Reni. She told me a story once about being on a date watching the cherry blossoms. I thought it was very romantic. The fact that I can’t remember that date’s name only means that love needs more than confessions to bring fruit. But I now understood how beautiful a setting the cherry blossoms are. And more than

that I feel like something in the air during that trip infected me with enthusiasm and new energy to make things happen.

Since I came back I acted on ideas I had kept in me for some time. Enough time thinking whether or not they make sense, doubting if the efforts are worth it and enjoying the procrastination and insecurity that often haunt my projects. It was time to confess to my ideas that I love them and I am ready to have them grow.

Idea One: During my research at the national archive I came across a memoir written by a Bulgarian trader and business leader Hristo Yotsov, a guy nobody knows much about in Bulgaria let alone abroad. His book is a gem for it presents a classical liberal viewpoint generated in Bulgaria as opposed to imported through an American NGO post-1989. It is not the view of an economic theorist or philosopher but the view of a practical man whose philosophy is all the more impressive because it reflected his own experience. Accounts of the economic history of Bulgaria often tell us that the dominant culture in the country is anti-capitalist and anti-market, state-dependent and state-reliant; that liberalism was introduced from abroad and capitalism was imposed against the heart of the Bulgarian nation. But entering into the life and memoirs of Hristo Yotsov offers us an alternative point of view, opens up a debate by giving evidence that the pre-WWII Bulgarian society was not a homogenous anti-capitalist tribe but included powerful voices speaking economic freedom in a local language.  The book is fun and exposes not only state incompetence but the author’s own process of learning by doing. I think that publishing his memoirs and making them available to a wider audience is a good idea and I have started acting upon it.

Idea Two: Poetry and story telling are my passions for a long time. I listen to The Moth podcast, a attend poetry readings every time I have a chance but those do not happen very often. This year around May 24th (The Day of the Cyrillic Alphabet) I am planning a literary event in Varna, my hometown on the Black Sea. I will gather young as well as established writers in the nice atmosphere of a bar and have them share their ideas and emotions through language. I want to see people stand up and share their creativity; open up their hearts and offer their stories to others; to make us laugh or cry and thus remind us of the boundless glory of humanity.

D.C. cherries are in full blossom for about 14 days. What will happen to these ideas in reality is up to the market, I mean up to other people’s attached value to them, not just mine. I needed to share the feeling of blossoms that has obsessed me in the last two weeks. And before I return to my more mundane work on chapters 5 and 6, I have just one more Idea three:

A love confession, when it is awaited and welcome, makes you feel capable and encouraged to go ahead with your bravest ideas. Makes you want to give, to reach further, to extend yourself. It leads to things following. America, with its tempting promise that anything is possible, reminded me once again of how enabling it feels to be with friends, to be who you are and happy. I took her confession with me into the Eastern European spring where lake Pancharevo is still half frozen. And started doing, I got going and soon things will follow. Not all trees blossom with the cherries and not all fruits are ripe with the strawberries but if you love something you will live up to it and see it complete, you will be what you do and you will be happy to be obsessed by it.

Exchange controls and black money markets in Kiev

Money changing in Kiev is extremely difficult for reasons I do not fully understand. Exchange offices are either closed or when open it takes forever to complete and register the transaction. A passport is needed in order to change money. I was even told that Ukrainian citizens need to register how much money they exchange monthly and in case of big amounts to prove the origin of the money exchanged. These are recent regulations (from September 23 2011) and have to do with some shortage of hard currency or concerns about the stability of the hryvnia. Interest rates on deposits in hryvnia are above 15 % which looks like a bad inflation forecast. You can read more about the new regulations in Kateryna Panova and Jakub Parushinski’s article in the Kyiv Post 

For the random traveler it was a good news that exchange rate at the airport was the same as in the city, which I have not seen in any other country. It was also possible to exchange gold (I think there was only a “we buy” price quote for gold). The problem of long lines of people waiting in front of the exchange office often found a solution in the form of spontaneous black markets emerging so familiar from the socialist economy.

After I missed my flight from Kiev to Riga (due to no fault of my own) I had to change money to go back to the city center. The line was long and stood still. I couldn’t stand there waiting anymore. I turned around to the young Russian couple behind me and asked them if they had hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency translates as bracelet). They said they had some and were looking for rubles. I had no rubles but needed to change euro. They agreed to exchange hryvnia for my euro. I had a 20 and a 5 euro notes while they had a 100 hryvnia. At an exchange rate of 11 hryvnia per euro this was an unfortunate combination. To change 20 euro I needed to get 220 hryvnia and they did not have that  much. To change 5 euros I needed to get 55 hryvnia but they only had a whole bill of 100. After trying unsuccessfully to break the bill at different airport shops the transaction failed.

The next day I bought a carton of cigarettes which I had promised to bring back to Vienna, performing another legendary function of the  east-west traveler. That left me short of cash again. All currency exchange offices on Independence Square were closed with the exception of one. The line in front of it was also exceptional. This time a man approached me and offered to change my money. It was my last day in Kiev the sun was going down in a few hours I still wanted to see so many things, waiting in line seemed like a stupid thing to do. I agreed. I asked him if the money was real. It would have been such a ridiculous way to be cheated if he gave me fakes. But he said something like “we never had any counterfeit money here”, sounding like I should have known this fact about Ukraine. I trusted him. 50 euro changed hands with 550 hrevnia which not only looked like it should  but also bought like hot. There was something exciting about being a part of a black currency exchange market, of realizing a successful private transaction of mutual benefit and satisfaction without having to resort to police like procedure and well before the sun went down. It was like stepping back in time and rediscovering the beauty of voluntary exchange.

In fact Kiev money exchange is not so bad. I have definitely been through a more cumbersome and expensive money changing procedure. Downtown Los Angeles in 2009 had no currency exchange offices at all. I had to go to a bank and since I was not a customer of this bank I had to present both my passport and a commission of 7 or 8 USD for any transaction. 2010 New York was similar. Banks are not fun anyway at least not for small transactions. Inside a bank no lines are able to form and there is no  possibility of meeting potential counterpart for exchange. The security will not allow it either. For your safety. The act of trusting a complete stranger on the side of the street as I did in Kiev is simply unthinkable in the USA. Maybe I am just spoiled because in Sofia it is easy to find a 24/7 currency exchange that is never closed, has almost any currency on earth and no waiting lines.

October

Frustrated, betrayed, disillusioned,

Half-certain, Half-mad, halfhearted

We are setting forth to a promise

On the road where you rolled

Your false scriptures

Your upward trends, your dead theories, your social contracts.

The pavement is being picked up and starts flying at you.

Overqualified, underrepresented,

Uprooted, underprivileged,

Cosmopolitan, gender neutral,

Universal, humanistic, humane

Irrelevant brains…

Who needs our common sense?

Irrational, spontaneous, natural

Intense, anxious, hysterical

Creative, brave, insane,

Unpredictable, irresistibly

Cool…

Who needs such a tool?

Strong and sturdy, resilient,

Physically and mentally tough

Heavy-lifters, night-shifters,

Lumberjacks

And drivers of trucks

Who needs their trails through the dark?

How much do we have too many,

Unemployed, non-contributing, uninsured,

Unproductive, unskilled, inflexible,

Unfit for corporate identity,

Useless

Human

Beings

Inconvertible to human resources?

Angry, indebted, at risk.

On the verge of collapse.

This is not a storm in a glass.

This is your middle class.

Your households, electorate, citizens,

Demonstrators, protesters, revolutionaries,

Rebel-tax-payers, ex-owners, losers

Screwed

But still patient,

The nation!

Not defined by its occupation

But by its lack of relation

To power

To money

To parliamentary representation.

They have a power point message,

Jargon-free, politically incorrect,

Messy,

Coming not from the left-right discourse,

Not from statistically aggregated scores

But from own life experience

Of excluded obedience

Simple message is ranted

“You can’t take us for granted!”

To this Wall Street awakens

And in Oakland there’s violence.

Respectively there are heroes.

But while no one was watching

On the backstreets where dark is

Somewhere north of Greece

In the beginning of the East

But not yet in Russia

Our voices are harsher.

Grumpy, desperate, tired

Existentially lonely we are vastly diverse

Geographically dispersed

Socially inhomogeneous

Culturally ambiguous

Neither here nor there

We don’t rant but we swear.

We have no ideology.

We don’t need no apology.

On the buses from Prague

In the railway stations

Migrant workers, sex slaves and PhD students

With no nerves or no manners

We don’t carry no banners

We are all going home.

We have nothing in common.

With no confidence in the process

In reforms, institutions and ballot boxes

In the inalienability of our constitutional rights.

We resort to fights!

And to racial violence even.

Not because we are simple bigots.

But because you failed to install justice

And defaced our freedoms.

This is not some chaotic anxiety

This is your civil society.

In full sobriety.

Asking for self-restraint.

I am always amazed,

When I go to America and hear the activists speak,

Not for fun or out of deprivation

But of duty and in confirmation

That a citizen must speak or lose.

This trust in communication

And the realization

That you are so deaf to the Public Sphere

Here

Brings me to tears.

But I hear your laughter.

Democracy is a show for the EU

And to you

We are no good for better.

You repulse me.

I write you a letter.

What you make out of politics is disgrace

But disgrace we can face.

We are here and many and ranting.

We are granted permission for camping

To express the deep frustration

Of more than one generation

With this false legitimization

Of rule.

The world is no longer your fool.

31.10.2011, Vienna

The father of the computer is of Bulgarian origin but the mother is not the communist party

1973, USA, John Vincent Atanasoff  is named the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer.

1980, People’s republic of Bulgaria, the first three local computers are produced as analogues of Apple II.

1985,  John Vincent Atanasoff (as a Bulgarian) receives the first class order of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria  for his invention.

To this day Bulgaria is proud to have given something to the world. And this something is nothing less than what defines the latest industrial revolution – the computer. Atanasoff was of course an American whose father immigrated to the USA in 1889. So Bulgaria has actually given the grandfather of the computer to the world rather than the computer itself. The irony is that Bulgaria could have done much more if it were not called the People’s Republic of. Instead of being a story about glory and achievement this is a story of a sorry conception. The conception of the Bulgarian computer and its abortion by the communist party.

Indeed Bulgaria was a leader in computer  technologies among the socialist countries in the 1980’s when it produced first 8bit processors on an Apple architecture and later 16 bit analogues of IMB PC. In the early 1980’s Bulgaria surprised the world with the first microprocessor controlled robot hand “ROBCO”. The electronic equipment of the Russian space station and shuttle was also designed and produced in Bulgaria. The main plant in Pravetz (the birthplace of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov) produced 40% of the computers used in the Socialist bloc by 1985, the electronics industry employed 300 000 people and generated 13.3 billion USD yearly.

For only a few years. Back in the 1980’s the commanding highs of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance regarded “telecommunications as a kind of private luxury irrelevant to development planning”. We read this in Michael Palairet’s review of Berend, 1996 along with the reviewer’s own experience:  “When researching the history of the Bulgarian steel industry, I was impressed by the modernity of its imported control technology, but although Bulgaria took pride in its role as Comecon’s computer specialist, the plan fulfilment spreadsheets for the mid-1980s were entered entirely in pencil or ink.” (Palairet, 1997).

Our understand of development directly affects the path of our development. This inability to predict the transforming potential of new technologies is the main difference between a capitalist system based on entrepreneurship and a communist system based on central planning. It is also an important example of what Friedrich Hayek means by dispersed knowledge and the inability to plan what we do not understand. It is widely known that communism is at odds with innovation. But those who see the world only as a revolution of one class against another remain blind to the innovation that is a revolution in itself.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_computer_hardware_in_Soviet_Bloc_countries#Bulgarian_computers;

http://www.pravetz.info/

Michal Palairet, Review: Ivan T. Berend, Central and easternEurope, 1944-1993: detourfrom the periphery to the periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xviii + 414. /J45), Economic History Society, 1997:392.