Thursday, September 10, 2009


Yesterday was 09.09.09, the last repeating single-number date for a thousand years. As usual, there were many expecting this world to come to an end. In China the digit "9" is a good omen, to the point that an emperor long time ago supposedly had 9,999 rooms built in his palace. In nearby Japan the number means bad luck and is often omitted in hotel rooms and such. Only "4" is worse, symbolizing death and doom. Years ago one of our country's airlines flying to the Far East was advertizing special fares with a toll free number 800-444-4444 and they couldn't figure out why the phone didn't ring off the hook. One should check with local customs and superstition, or just ask a native which GM failed to do when marketing a Chevy Nova car to Latin America. Although the company has tried to deny this, I don't think that "no go" as a name is a good selling point.

We have plenty of different groups deeply involved in the meaning of numbers. The Chabad movement within Judaism often tries to explain matters with numeric help. In Hebrew, the alphabet or alefbet have also numerical values, somewhat similarly as the Romans used I, V, X, L, C, D and M to represent numbers. Especially mystic Judaism finds hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. Likewise, as mentioned before, Asian cultures give a lot of importance to numbers. The Beijing Olympics opened on 08.08.08: "888" means three times the prosperity, "wealthy wealthy wealthy".

Science behind numbers would be useful in our society today. Some financial "geniuses" thought they had it all figured out and computer programs made hedge funds seemingly wealthier by the minute. That might have been the case until the house of cards collapsed a year ago. Global economy took a terrible hit and although there are recent signs of modest recovery, the number of unemployed remains record high and property values record low. We recently received our property tax assessment for next year and it was 25% lower than previously. Other people I've talked to tell of similar stories. In this city and county, property tax income is the main source of funding for schools and many other expenses. Washington doesn't have state income tax so it relies on sales tax. People are buying a lot less than before and actually saving these days instead of spending more than their disposable income as was the case for some years. Property can no longer be used as a personal piggy bank. Many people owe far more on their houses in mortgages and home equity loans than those properties are worth today.

Non-profits are feeling this pinch. Services for the less fortunate are suffering, such as food banks. In a "socialist" system which we seem to fear more than death, the system steps in and people are fed and sheltered, without the need for private donations. Here more and more of the poor have to go hungry, children among them. In this context the cries for help by elitist arts organizations seem ridiculous. Classical music or ballet will not fill an empty stomach. I am not saying that preserving the arts isn't important, but there has to be a proper order of priorities. We could easily live for a year or two without a symphony orchestra or an opera company. Music wouldn't die: everything is readily available on both audio and video recordings. The well-to-do snobs could have different events where the ladies could show off their latest wardrobes. Perhaps these gatherings could serve as functions to collect funds for the needs of the poor and suffering, not to fatten the wallets of conductors and such.

A provincial opera house is advertising discounts which are greater by each additional production one subscribes to. Three shows are 30% off, four 40%. With this logic the Metropolitan in New York would have free subscriptions for ten productions and they would actually pay the subscriber for the eleventh. An orchestra, having already lowered their ticket prices, is giving 20% discounts to American Express cardholders. Other groups have totally free concerts and other performances, in some cases projected onto giant screens outdoors. While this may create interest in the performing arts, it is a lousy business model. Once people get used to the idea of getting something for free, they will be reluctant to pay for it in the future. Arts organizations will become increasingly dependent on wealthy donors and even their ranks are thinning out. A matching grant becomes a reality at the last moment with an involvement of an E.T., extra-terrestrial. That's all fine and a figurehead's face is thus saved, but don't call the organization a product of civic pride. It would be more appropriate to give it a name of the Godfather: so-and-so's orchestra, opera, or ballet. Leave out the city and call the institution by the name of the benefactor. This has been done in the past so why not today? There is no 'Baltimore" in Johns Hopkins University, or "New York" in Carnegie Hall, after all.

If ticket income becomes a non-issue, more money would be saved if no such tickets need be printed and events wouldn't have to be advertised. In the winter time auditoriums could double as shelters from the cold and in the summer from the heat. Offer free ear plugs to those which classical music makes feel ill, or in fairness, play Country or Hip-Hop every so often. During my youth in Philadelphia there were movie theaters in poor areas that featured old Westerns. For a quarter you could sit in an air-conditioned space for two different movies. The theaters got their reels for nothing and provided the impoverished population an important social service at low cost.

I wish I could be a clairvoyant and see what this society will be like in a decade. On the other hand, perhaps it is a blessing I can't.