Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Heat


A rare heat wave in the Puget Sound area is finally over. Clearly I wasn’t made for a hot climate. Growing up in pre-global-warming Finland meant that I was more at ease biking to school at 20° below zero than sweating in an uncomfortable, almost 100° city. Yes, we Finns like our saunas and when inside, one can tolerate much higher temperatures, feeling great, but we always know it will come to a sudden end, plunging into a cold lake or even rolling in the snow in winter. Last night a cool breeze overtook Seattle rather suddenly and I fell asleep early, in relief. My dreams were even more fantastic than usual, but included some scary elements such as human sacrifice, no doubt a product of following the bloody television footage from conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. I just read on the Independent that the Iraqis are seriously thinking of dividing the country into two, east and west. The Sunnis would have control of the west, and the eastern Shi’a part would become in a sense an extension of Iran, although formally a separate entity. This discussion left the Kurds out: surely there are many who would finally like to see an independent Kurdistan as well. Whatever it takes to calm that corner of the world down, let it be. Iraq as a nation was an artificial creation to start with. Forcing totally different ethnic groups to live under one flag is complicated at best. Just look at the former Yugoslavia: without Tito's iron fist the union crumbled in no time at all.

I have previously written about how little factual knowledge Americans in general have of the situation in today’s world. A few days ago I spoke with a well educated family member who was praising the White House for encouraging the Israelis to ‘squash’ Lebanon and Muslims in general. This Jewish person’s thoughts were based on raw emotions; she had no more knowledge of the real issues than the fanatic Muslims on the streets of many countries. Hamas and Hezbollah were one and the same, the Gaza Strip had magically moved from the Egyptian border into Lebanon, and mentioning the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims drew a blank. Once again, I frankly believe that schools are not allowed or at least encouraged to teach geography. The more ignorant people are, the easier their opinions (=votes) are to manipulate, all in the name of democracy. Yet people live under the illusion that they know a lot about important issues. Yes, some do, but they are a minority, and often a thorn on the side of whoever is in power.

Why the heat felt so uncomfortable was also because it brought back so many unpleasant memories, of life in Southern California and so many wasted summers on the East Coast. The latter was work I felt obligated to do, and it was quite unsatisfying musically; mediocre at best. It was truly 'instant art' (just add water and mix!): three rehearsals bang-bang-bang and then two concerts. Some visiting artists were able to inspire the group to outdo themselves occasionally, though. The opposite was true as well: I particularly remember a big name conductor who hadn’t bothered to learn the opening work, a practically unknown composition, and got completely lost and in the first concert took the orchestra with him, at least those who mistakenly looked up. As nice and great as the musicians were as individuals, as a group the Mostly Mozart orchestra was suffering and miserable, for reasons I well knew but was unable to do anything about. I’m pleased that they are much happier now and able to enjoy music making, even in the heat. The music camp I was part of earlier didn’t fare much better in the satisfaction department, although I liked the teaching element of it. It was billed as the Waterloo Music Festival, but in truth was a student orchestra, fortified with faculty musicians and ringers from New York. Needless to say, it ceased to exist many years ago. Playing under boiling lights in an already-hot and humid tent made good use of my Finnish sisu. Sometimes it was fun watching some of the huge insects fly around during concerts, attracted by the bright lights, and wonder where they would land next. On at least one occasion the rain got so bad that nobody could hear the violin soloist, and the concert came to a halt. We certainly don’t get weather like that in this neck of the woods.

Had I known better and seen the future, I certainly would have turned all that work down and instead enjoyed a vacation every year, something I really never got to do. For over twenty years I managed to squeeze in a trip to the family’s summer home in Finland, but the time there was always limited, and with aging parents, and under the primitive although wonderful surroundings, filled with hard work. True, while living in Finland in my twenties, raising my first family, long paid vacations were guaranteed by law, but being young I was eager to do music camps and festivals, always traveling with the violin and playing. It is high time for me to learn the art of relaxing and enjoying what life has to offer.

As it was too hot to do anything else, I decided to use my logic skills and fixed the networking problem on my own, without having to make any more annoying calls to tech support. So, even the heat wave turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Messy Democracy

One of mankind’s worst inventions is that what we call democracy. Giving an idiot or a truly ignorant person the same voting power as to the highly learned, intelligent and hopefully wise one is ridiculous. Of course in principal democracy is a noble idea, but so is communism. People are manipulated easily and votes bought. When was the last time a poor Mr. or Mrs. Smith was elected to an office of any importance in the U.S.? Campaigns are a game for the rich. Issues put in front of voters are too complex for most to understand, and it is next to impossible to get unbiased information on them. Making the opponent look as bad as possible is a standard tactic for any candidate, not trying to come up with new fresh, doable ideas.

This country has an urge to promote its variety of democracy as a model to the world. We are seeing the results in Iran, Iraq and Palestine, even Lebanon. Has anyone bothered to think that perhaps these people, a great percentage of whom aren’t even able to read, would have been better off with a different system, something they have been used to? Emotions run high in world’s political hotspots; few are willing to listen to a voice of reason. Palestine is a good example: we insisted that they have fair elections and democracy. When the unthinkable happened and a militant group that we consider a terrorist organization won, we simply didn’t know how to react or what to do. It is too late to state that we Americans and Europeans will not have anything to do with Hamas. By denying aid we are like sore losers, and are creating a perfect breeding ground for an endless number of future terrorists. People who go hungry and thirsty and have nothing to lose are easily persuaded to commit desperate acts. Without the election, PLO would be still in charge, and at least Israel and the West was having some kind of a dialogue with them. By taking part in a fair election Hamas for once did nothing wrong: they won because people voted for them. People have also given their support to leftist candidates in Latin America, most notably Hugo Ch├ívez in Venezuela, and we are upset. Closer to home, the outcome of the Mexican election is still in dispute. Had the legal and illegal Mexicans in this country been able to vote, most likely the leftists would have fared better, but due to the strict and complicated absentee ballot system in Mexico, only something like one percent were able to cast their vote.

The Middle East situation is truly sad. I can well understand Israel’s desire to disarm their sworn enemy Hezbollah or at least weaken their ability to attack their country. However, the human suffering is hard to take, and innocents have become the victims. Our government has been too uninvolved in the area as they have been since the Clinton era; that much every expert I’ve heard has agreed on. Actually, I think the White House is quite pleased that the horrendous situation in Iraq is no longer front page news. Never mind that the number of casualties in that country is a thousand times higher than Lebanon and Israel. Suicide bombers killing 46 in a mosque barely make the news. Or are these explosions just like fireworks, set off by happy Iraqis to celebrate their new freedom and democracy? A developing pact of Shi’a fundamentalists in power from Iran to Lebanon, via Iraq and Syria, looks absolutely terrifying on the map.

A different kind of conflict is happening at the home front here. A longtime customer of Earthlink, I agreed to have them take over my second phone line and provide a promised extra fast 6 Mbps DSL on it. The previous setup worked perfectly: Qwest took care of the phone service and Earthlink provided the normal speed broadband. All our many computers were networked, no problem. On the day the service was switched the phone went dead and after talking for many hours to India it started working a few days later. The DSL was another story. The green light on the modem would come on and then disappear ten seconds later and this would happen continuously. I spent an entire day on the phone first talking to a hard-to-understand woman in India, and then to a nice and clear man from the Philippines. Finally I asked him to contact someone here locally, and the man from Covad told them instantly that our house is too far from the central to have the promised speed work. The speed was dropped back to 1.5 Mbps and I was finally able to connect to the Internet, at half that speed. However, there has been no way to make the network operate like it did before, even having had professionals come here to try to solve the problem. Essentially we are down to one PC and I dread having to spend another day talking to Earthlink’s technical support, where ever they happen to be this time. I’m also thinking of other solutions. With teenagers who are used to living with the web and a wife who is hard at work writing her book, I’m lucky to be able to check my email. I understand that outsourcing saves American companies a lot of money, but no person on the other side of the globe could have known what was obvious to a local technician. Globalization is another strange phenomena and I’m not certain it works any better than democracy.

On a more pleasant note, my daughter Anna is happy as a clam in Guadalajara and was placed in the second highest Spanish group. She will be able to take her political classes in Spanish unlike most of the others, unless they are native speakers. What a great opportunity this is for her, living with a Mexican family and being treated as a local.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Deepening Crisis

It is not very long ago when the world celebrated Lebanon’s new freedom, after the Syrian occupation ended and the Israeli troops withdrew from the south. Before that the country had witnessed a long and bloody civil war which left much of Beirut, the capital, in ruins. All this was happening in a small country which in my youth was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a place where people of different religions and cultures could coexist peacefully. Unfortunately, the joy of peace proved once again to be short-lived.

As if the world wasn’t in enough of a mess already, escalating violence in areas surrounding Israel is getting out of hand. It is not hard to understand that citizens of that country have a hard time trusting their longtime enemies Hezbollah and Hamas, but, in my humble opinion, to start a war because of kidnapping of a few soldiers doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, at least without trying to give diplomacy a chance. The resulting blood bath on both sides is simply terrible. Of course it is nothing compared to the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here we are talking about a much more civilized part of the Middle East. Distances are so short that a rocket flying a few miles can cause great damage inside the other country. For the Israeli air force to bomb Beirut is as simple as if New York attacked Philadelphia. Does making the Beirut airport unusable prevent further attacks by Hezbollah? Of course not: the only ones suffering are ordinary civilians. I’m by no means taking a side against Israel; the official goal of both terrorist organizations is the destruction of the Jewish state, a sick principle indeed. But there has been a lot of international pressure from all major powers to change all that; however, after recent events in Lebanon and Gaza it is harder than ever to convince the Palestinians that Israel wants peaceful coexistence. Of course, returning the soldiers unharmed would have resolved the crisis, but militants are not known for common sense and good will, no matter what side they are on.

It is interesting to note that the Palestinian neighbor countries, namely Egypt and Jordan, don’t want to open their borders to let the suffering people in, even temporarily. Muslim brotherhood goes only so far, it seems. The West Bank was a part of Jordan for a while but the kingdom was more than happy to give it up. The pro-Western Hashemite rulers are constantly afraid of the increasing Palestinian population. Egypt certainly could help the suffering Gaza population more, but seems unwilling to do so. Perhaps there is enough unrest within Egypt itself as terrorist strikes there are frequent. Hezbollah is rumored to be financed by Iran and this is where we can blame ourselves. By invading Iraq and causing complete chaos there, the United States removed the greatest threat and competitor to Iran and helped it to become a new superpower for the region. With price of oil rising daily Iran can well afford to stick its thumb up the noses of the Western countries. Financing a guerilla group in Lebanon is good PR for Iran in the Muslim world, at least in the radical part of it, and the cost of it for them is insignificant.

The March issue of the Atlantic Monthly has an excellent article about the situation in Palestine, titled ‘The Checkpoint.’ It makes a very valid observation: “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, soldiers—Israeli, Russian, and American—are learning that the hardest thing is not taking control of a territory but attempting to administer it once you are there.” I think our leaders have finally realized that, too.

At some point my daughter Anna was thinking of going to Israel this summer, just like many of her Hillel friends. I’m relieved that she chose to go to study in Guadalajara, Mexico, instead, having left for there just yesterday. Not that the political situation in our southern neighbor country is comforting: the recent election is still being contested and mass demonstrations have happened and no doubt will just grow in size. At least Guadalajara is a more peaceful place than Mexico City but certainly they will see their share of the unrest. For a political science major seeing democracy at work should be of great interest. She will hopefully be able to visit Israel during a more stable period. I try to be an optimist and believe that one day peace will be a reality. It won’t happen overnight, but one must not forget that both Jordan and Egypt have established diplomatic relations with Israel, something that a few decades ago would have seemed impossible.

Shalom—Salaam

Saturday, July 08, 2006

For the Birds

This month’s Scientific American has, among other fascinating stories, an article on the vision of birds. It turns out that they are able to sense colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, having inherited four cone pigments from our common vertebrate ancestor. As mammals evolved, four was reduced to two, and later a third one came to be. All this means is that our feathered friends are able to see a vastly greater number of colors and recognize patterns where it all looks the same to us. There are a large number of birds in which we have trouble telling a female from a male as they look almost identical. Not so for them: with the added UV element added the differences become very clear. Of course we cannot even begin to imagine how birds and other animals sense the world around us: color is after all the product of the brain interpreting input from the eyes, not a property of light. Color-blind people have to make do with what nature has given them; we all seem to be in that position when compared to species that are more advanced than us in this department.

Seeing color is an interesting sensation. In many individuals it is closely connected to other senses. A person may see lights before the onset of a migraine headache or an epileptic seizure. Some of us see colors when listening to music or other sounds, like in my own case. Different pitches and keys are not only sensed by the ear: the brain also translates them into hues of color. Some music can be visually very pleasing, some other evoking ugly images enough to make one ill. I don’t know if this ‘gift’ is a blessing or a curse. People who are happy with just plowing ahead with whatever music they are listening to or playing are probably just as lucky as a person who can’t tell whether he is wearing a red shirt or a green one. After all, sensitivity can be a distraction: in music the most basic elements (loud-soft, fast-slow, short-long) are often all that seem to be required. Many leaders are ruthless and desensitized: when deciding to send soldiers to fight one cannot think of all the resulting suffering. There would be no wars if leaders had sensitivity and emotions; a conscience in other words.

The oldest crow in the world just croaked at the age of 59. It had lived all these years in captivity as a pet, having fallen out of its nest in a cemetery during a thunderstorm in 1947, never having been able to fly as a result of injury. That bird hadn’t seen ultraviolet or any other colors for a long time as it had been blinded by cataracts. Had Tata the Crow lived in Seattle instead of N.Y. State, based on this city’s rationale, he might have become a key figure for Boeing (a bird must be an expert in aviation even if he can’t fly), keeping his prominent role for all those decades (after all, with all those years of experience he must have been very insightful, even when blind). Who knows, perhaps he would have also become a star in the local music scene, a Ta-Ta. We all know what a magnificent singing voice a crow possesses!

Picture of 'Tata' by Kristine Flones

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Exciting Times

We are living in exciting times, least of which is not the soccer World Cup. Surely there have been some major upsets, such as all the favorite Latin American teams having been eliminated by the semi-finals, but there has been some wonderful playing by countries such as Portugal, not normally associated with the world’s top contenders. To our surprise, little Ghana managed to kick the mighty U.S. out of the games early on. Now we have four European Union members facing each other; they also all happen to be in the euro (€) monetary union, which some other, now eliminated, contenders (U.K., Switzerland, Sweden, Ukraine) are not. Is this perhaps symbolic of something? My daughter Anna and I are the soccer fanatics in the family and both of us prefer watching the games on Univision: the coverage is so much more intense and lively than on ESPN, and it is also good for our language skills. I feel sorry for Argentina’s goalie who was injured and replaced: had this not been the case, the outcome of the deciding game’s penalty kicks easily would have been different, in spite of Germany’s home field advantage. It was also surreal to watch England play Portugal and have the largely British spectators sings ‘God Save the Queen’ anytime their team had the ball and were advancing, or to have a plea for audience members to refrain from racial remarks before the Brazil-France match.

Today is another exciting day as Mexico holds elections. The presidential race will likely be a close one. I like to play with words and think that it would be interesting if an ‘Obrador Retriever’ would follow a ‘Fox’ in office, in true canine fashion. In spite of a large portion of Texans not knowing what foreign country is below their southern border, the development in Mexico is extremely important to the United States. Whoever will be the winner, he and the newly elected parliament will face enormous difficulties with widespread corruption, poverty and the volatile situation in the south. But Mexico also has tremendous potential and should be of great importance to us as of the two neighbors it is by far the more populous. Any solution to our illegal immigrant problem will have to have equal support of both governments, otherwise it will be totally ineffective.

There is excitement on the home front, too. July 4th is promising to be a beautiful day and we can enjoy the Lake Union fireworks right from our sundeck. Anna will be traveling to Guadalajara later this month to study in the university there for five weeks. Needless to say my daughter is as thrilled as can be about the opportunity. All of us here also have a strong feeling that something else incredible is about to take place, even though we don’t know what it will be. Positive thoughts are great and hope for a better world is priceless. If we only could undo our mess in Iraq, or at least bring our men and women home before more of them are killed or maimed. But let us forget about unpleasant realities for a little while and enjoy all the excitement in the air.

Happy Independence Day to you all! No matter how hard some powers try to block it, freedom of choice and liberty will prevail.