Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life Without Man?

A recent issue of Scientific American told us how early Homo sapiens almost became extinct long time ago, due to a very hostile climate. Only a small number of humans survived in the caves of Southern Africa, around Pinnacle Point on the coastline. We are supposedly all descendants of these few hundred early people, who managed by eating clams and other seafood, provided to them by an ocean rich in nutrients. They also dug up the bulbs of many plants that are unique to the region, getting their carbohydrates that way. On the SciAm website there is also an interactive feature shedding light to the research.

As we may be heading toward another period of intolerable climate change, it is a good time to wonder what would have happened if humans hadn’t survived. It is possible that another subspecies of Homo might have been better protected against the hot, arid climate or survived in the Arctic regions. Other apes or advanced monkeys might have developed an intelligence similar to ours, or life would have moved to the seas and oceans. There are plenty of animals with very complex brains living even at present, although we have done a remarkable job in destroying them to the point of near extinction. It is an interesting quality in the human nature to make sure that no other life form with advanced brains is allowed to succeed and multiply in peace. Only with a large pool of such animals would mutations favoring superior intelligence be allowed to happen.

Whales and dolphins possess large brains and are amazing in many ways. However, the largest animal of all, Balaenoptera musculus or the blue whale is so few in numbers that it is lucky if it can find a mate. Yes, its super-Wagnerian singing can carry truly long distances in water, but remembering how vast the oceans are, the calls often go unheard. Only the Japanese and some native people eat whale meat and we certainly do not depend on oil from whales which at some point might have been an important source for light and heat. These krill-eaters were once common in all the oceans. Today’s blue whale population, estimated between five and twelve thousand, is a small fraction of pre-whaling numbers of 200-300,000. Dolphins are seldom caught for food except in the Faroe Islands in Northern Atlantic and part of Japan. However, humans pose the greatest threat to them, partially because of fishing nets. We have all seen cans of tuna being advertised as dolphin-safe, yet the animals continue to die in high numbers. Being on top of the food chain as predators, these playful mammals also ingest unhealthy amounts of human-origin heavy metals.

Intelligence does not belong to mammals alone. Many species of octopus have more complicated brains than us humans. That is required to change their coloring to match that of the sea bottom in an instant. Their behavior is also remarkable: they are often very playful and even flirtatious with people studying them. One named Paul became a celebrity in a German aquarium during this summers World Cup in soccer as it correctly managed to pick Germany as the winner in all the games until the final round when it correctly chose Spain as the gold medalist. This, of course, was not a show of intelligence as the octopus didn’t watch the games, but many Germans felt it managed to jinx the final game and became very angry, wanting to grill it an a punishment. About ten years ago a new species was found in Indonesia: the two-foot long Mimic Octopus is not only able to change its color but also its shape in a split second, turning into the worst nightmare for the predator that sees a meal in it, resembling a sea snake or a poisonous fish or another very dangerous creature.

What animals do with their intelligence is different from us humans. But is our variety really the best kind? A gigantic blue whale doesn’t hurt anyone, yet is able to dive to great depths and back with one gulp of air and no dangerous bubbles in its blood stream. It is far too big to have any natural enemies (stories of orcas attacking it do exist) other than we the people. If a dolphin is able to entertain us with its circus tricks, there must thousands of complicated things it is capable of accomplishing which we are not aware of. Make a waterproof computer and teach an octopus what it can do and those eight tentacles just might go to work. In return it might teach us how to change our appearance, for instance automatically turning bright red when lying.

For many decades we have made one of our ancestors, the Neanderthal man, the butt of jokes for his alleged stupidity and looks. Hitler’s propaganda machine had its artists draw caricatures of Jewish people with features resembling the cave man. Those who suggested that the “modern” human and the Neanderthal co-existed and even interbred were ridiculed until very recently. Actually the “primitive” cousin had a very large brain and possessed many traits that made him succeed in the less than hospitable world of that day. The latest studies show that all of us have a small inheritance from that gene pool; we are all part Neanderthal, other than the native people of the African continent. Since the world’s greatest thinkers are not usually pure African, it must be assumed that the mixture wasn’t for the worse. At least this writer is proud of his “cave man” past.

Last weekend went to a beach in nearby Discovery Park with my wife and youngest daughter. We go to an area which is almost private as very few want to make a 45 minutes hike and climb 400 feet down and up. There we were enjoying the sunshine that has been in short supply here this summer. While the rest of Northern Hemisphere is suffering from the hottest summer in recorded history, Seattle has been unusually cool. Back in my native Finland today an all-time new record of 99°F (37.2°C) was reached; here it is the afternoon but we are barely at 56°F (13°C). Anyway, that day was heavenly and we enjoyed the beautiful combination of nature, water and sun. It made me realize that even if the human race would not have survived, the place would look exactly the same, other than all the boats and ships of varying sizes in the distance or the nearby lighthouse. Yes, life would have gone on without us. Another species might have become a dominating one, or probably there would have been a nice balance which we have done our best to upset. The world’s problems would be quite different. There would be plenty of cruelty among the animals but no one can be as cruel as a human. A wolf will attack a deer, usually in a pack, but the death is swift and the victim will help the predators to survive. Often the killed would be the old or sick and thus they were saved from unnecessary suffering. No beast will make plans to make another one’s life miserable and there are no Bernie Madoffs among the bears.

Nature is the most fabulous sculptor and designer. She can also produce glorious music, be it bird or whale songs, waves crashing onto a shore or wind howling. That is one symphony truly worth hearing. I don’t know if saving those few hundred lives long ago was such a good idea, after all. Perhaps we will have to withdraw to our caves one day again. Obviously it won’t be all the billions on us; future of mankind may be in the hands of a few one more time.
in photos: blue whale, mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Deflating Bubbles

In America the word deflation has a similar ring to it as socialism or universal healthcare. In other words, we have to avoid it at all costs. Deflation would stunt growth which we have to pursue. But isn't growth often just another term for a bubble? Are we never satisfied with what we have?

Anyone who has experienced out of control hyperinflation would welcome deflation over it without a second thought. As a little boy I was collecting stamps and was amazed by old German ones which had a value expressed in milliards. Americans are in love with large numbers and base their unit system on thousands after a million, in contrast to European million millions. We lack a milliard (109) and call it a billion. Their billion equals an American trillion (1012). Confusing but perhaps this makes us feel richer. Runaway inflation at its extreme is scary as money loses its value faster than new bills can be printed. Prices go up daily: a simple bus fare in the afternoon may be higher than it was in the morning. People start using a barter system instead of a monetary one, or if the latter is a must, it will be done in another currency, such as the U.S. dollar. Above is a picture of a German woman using totally depreciated paper notes for cooking in 1923: it gave more heat than using the same money to buy any kind of fuel. The worst hyperinflation took place in post-war Hungary where prices tripled every day. In 1946 a bank note of 100 million billion pengő was issued and a couple months later a new currency was issued. One new forint equaled four hundred (our) octillion, or 4x1029 old pengő. For those who are not comfortable with exponents, the enormously large number looks like this:

I came back from Argentina in early 1980s as a millionaire many times over. I bought Marjorie a beautiful pair of amethyst earrings but had to pay for those in U.S. dollars. Much of Latin America suffered from hyperinflation and the governments had to print ever increasing quantities of paper bills to pay for their financial obligations. Israel had its share of similar woes and lately Zimbabwe had 98% inflation per day. With Communism's collapse the ruble suffered the same fate. In 1992 alone the inflation rate was 2,520%. Russians resorted to the old barter system. A plumber would come to fix your leaking faucet and in return you gave him a piece of paper promising five music lessons. He would use it to get groceries and the merchant would pass it on. One day a mother would show up at your door with her child and the promissory note which might have changed hands fifty or more times, and five piano lessons would be given.

For investors who like to gamble, rampant inflation is an opportunity, even if a risky one. But deflation puts an end to speculation. People want to hold onto their money, either in cash or in a bank even if it doesn't earn interest. Japan has lived with deflation since 1990s and people are not exactly suffering. Our country went through deflation during the Great Depression and we might be in a similar situation presently. Economists like to talk about deflationary spiral, yet there is no actual proof that it can happen. The stock market and speculative gambling would suffer, but people would still invest in something they see as worthy. Fewer mansions would be built but who really needs them? Taking a deep breath for a few years would do us no harm. Salaries for professions that are overpaid would correct themselves, others would go up. The former includes spectacle sports and all forms of entertainment. Let musicians, dancers and actors earn what audiences are willing to pay: forget a parasitic lifestyle. A doctor can heal people for a lot less, just as those working for Doctors without Borders do. Do away with malpractice lawsuits but publish the names of bad doctors instead. Train more primary care givers; we already have far too many specialists. Increase the number of nurse practitioners and midwives who in many cases do a better job than a doctor and for a lot less. Make teaching regain the respect it deserves, but throw out union contracts that make it next to impossible to fire bad instructors. Let Americans learn how to manufacture goods again, instead of depending on Chinese imports. Let working hard become again a virtue and base an income on that, not on crooked betting.

Growth has its limits. A pyramid scheme soon collapses as it is impossible to sustain. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme lasted as long as it did because investors believed in the phony statements that made them seem rich on paper. A country's economy automatically grows if its population does. Yes, we can find capable leaders for a company or a bank for a lot less than their present CEOs demand. The head of Wal-Mart makes more in an hour what the workers earn in a year. Perhaps my value system seems strange but to me that is crazy. It is also nuts that an orchestra's conductor, titled "music director", would earn as much as 25 musicians and he does only a fraction of the yearly work. Yet many would argue that said musicians are already grossly overpaid. Is it not possible to find a stage hand for Carnegie Hall for less than the $500,000 or close to it five of them make? The purpose of labor unions was to guarantee people a living wage, not to rip off the system.

Even in physiology a growth cannot continue forever. In a malignant case it will kill the patient, and itself, unless a surgical or other medical intervention will result in a remission. In a few cases a gigantic non-malignant tumor can grow to an enormous size. In 1991 a multicystic mass of an ovary weighing 303 lbs (about 138 kg) was successfully removed. Needless to say, without the operation the woman's life span would have been shortened quite a bit. We don't know if our present economic tumor is a killer but it is clear that surgery will be needed.

Time for a witch's brew: bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Un opéra sensuel

It is no secret that in spite of getting trained in expensive colleges and universities, musicians receive a very limited education. As a result they befriend other musicians, talk shop and know preciously little about anything else.

Three decades ago I decided that a certain young woman was not going to be like most of our colleagues. I had every intention of sharing my life with her and I did not want to end up with a music nerd. It wasn't an easy task, but after all these years my better half is well versed in literature, philosophy and even history. Geography is going to be next on the list, although already she is far more knowledgeable than most Americans in this subject.

Because of my native country's bloody history with its gigantic neighbor, I hardly qualify as a Russophile. Yet some of my favorite creative artists have come from there and thus my first attempts to introduce the young lovely lady to great literature were with Russian authors. The world they describe is closely related to the one in Yiddish literature, after all, and she could learn about her own roots. Later the literary discoveries were followed by German greats, and finally the French which my spouse has developed a real fondness of. After Stendhal and Proust came Anatole France. I wasn't surprised to find a library DVD of Massenet's opera Thaïs in the house the other day. The libretto by Louis Gallet is based on France's book and the author thought that it followed his story exceptionally well, even though the name of the male protagonist, monk Paphnuce, was changed to Athanaël. Soon Massenet's glorious melodies and harmonies made my wife fall asleep, so I watched the video myself. Actually it was a short nap and we enjoyed most of the opera together.

This is a beautifully executed Italian production, recorded in Venice eight years ago. Like in every good French opera, ballet plays a pivotal role in Thaïs. In this staging much of it includes nudity, but it isn't offensive in the least bit, and the plot is sexually strongly charged anyway. When the famous Meditation melodie is played for the first time by the solo violin (excellent Roberto Baraldi), the beautiful prima ballerina (Letizia Giuliani) performs a most seductive dance. I wish America wasn't such a prudish place; otherwise I would make every student working on the piece watch this scene. Yes, everyone's eyes would no doubt pop out, but the meaning of the gorgeous Meditation would become instantly clear.

Massenet wrote the lead role for an American soprano Sybil Sanderson, from Sacramento. Her voice must have been quite incredible as she had a range of three octaves and could double as a coloratura with ease. A true Frenchman, Massenet soon became the 20+-year-old's lover. In this production the role of Thaïs is sung by Eva Mei who performs it quite beautifully except for the very highest register which tends to sound a bit forced. Michele Pertusi as Athanaël is most convincing with a fabulous bass-baritone, and portrays like a great actor the monk's eventual mad lust for the former priestess of Venus. Their roles have been completely reversed as she has now found eternal love in Christianity and is waiting to enter Heaven.

All in all this video is so well done that it is hard to believe one is watching a live performance. The orchestra of Teatro La Fenice di Venezia plays the way only an Italian pit orchestra can. If the violins are slightly unsure of their pitch when the music has lots of flats in the key signature, the overall spirit and joy of musicianship more than makes up for it. The conductor, Marcello Viotti, shares his surname with one of the greatest violinist-composers in history and is well worth the expectations such a name causes. The chorus and the ballerinas are truly World Class (how I hate that expression!) and again prove how essential it is that the ballet corps is part of the opera company. The French would not have it any other way and in most European opera houses this is a reality. Naturally the ballet can perform outside of opera productions and not every opera calls for dancers, but even then the groups can share a great pit orchestra.

Although some of the greatest music has been written for it, in general I am not a great fan of opera. Perhaps this has to do with my dislike of the people who come to a production premiere just to show off their latest dresses, furs and other signs of a pretentious lifestyle. Often they have absolutely no interest in the singing and playing. My first experience with opera was a very pleasant one: as a boy I saw Così fan tutte in Stockholm on a small stage of a royal castle. It was utterly charming and the little orchestra, wearing powdered wigs, played quite well. The other extreme was a long time ago at the Met in New York. I was in the audience with a well-known European conductor who had never been to that opera house before. It was Mozart again but this time Don Giovanni. It was definitely an off-afternoon for the company: if anything could go wrong, it did. In the second act a technical glitch caused an additional intermission of over 20 minutes. Singing was substandard and all wrong for Mozart; my knowledgeable guests were most disappointed, almost angry. Mozart is tricky: it has to be just right in order to be enjoyable.

So, I don't follow the news about the world of opera religiously. I did, however, read ten days ago a well-thought-out article by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. In it she laments the fact that completely new operas are an increasingly endangered species as they are too expensive for the demand. A production recently on this coast of the continent became very costly to the company, forcing them to save on staging performances this coming season. Many of the few remaining critics of classical music are advocates for new music and loudly complain about the "safe" programming of late. Yes, one can insert a world premiere as a part of an orchestra concert but no conductor or manager would be foolish enough to dedicate an entire subscription program to new music. It has its fans, among others composer-wannabees, but it is difficult to gather more than a few hundred listeners for such an event. Today's composers also like their music loud, in a "bang-bang, tank-you-Mam" style, requiring extra players and not fully utilizing the existing ones, such as large string sections. Orchestras and groups perform such repertoire in smaller halls. Perhaps opera companies should venture outside of their large auditoriums and do similar versions in suitable locations. Most universities with sizeable music departments have such venues; I don't see any reason why they would refuse to share that space, especially if the professional company would produce something utilizing some the school's talent, both faculty and students.

Time to take out the violin and play the Meditation, this time with new images in my head!
Eva Mei as Thaïs © Dynamic slr