Sunday, December 16, 2007

Raccoon Creek State Park in the snow

The weather forcast for western PA this weekend was for about a foot of snow, 50 mph winds, flooding and all sorts of other fun things. Of course, now that school is out, S was worried about getting bored. So she thought it would be a great idea to go backpacking. Preferably someplace far enough away to be interesting. Somehow, all of S's friends neglected to tell me how dangerous it was when S got bored. Furious negotiation over the following week reduced this to a mere hike, in a park that was in the county that S lived in. Much safer (for a saner L. Not that L has not done crazy things like this is the past, mind you).

So, this morning, we made our way to Raccoon Creek State Park, through the falling snow, rain, and forbidding clouds that were above during the drive there. We arrived at the parking lot off PA-18, the parking lot was empty. We picked up our packs. Checked our maps. Looked up at the gray sky, and headed up the Lake Trail (to Forest trail)

The start of the hike

Raccoon Creek features some nice trails, up hills, through evergreen conifers. One of the early ominous signs we saw were the sign notifying us that we were in No Hunting zones, which brings to mind the question, why was that important?

The other side is the safe side

The answer, of course, is obvious.

Oh, we don't want to go any further that way

One other highlight of this hike were the creek crossings. I don't know how things are the rest of the year but on weekends of rainfall, the creeks are high enough so that they cover any rocks. So we went wading through the creeks. Fortunately, S had recently purchased a pair of Gore-tex (TM) lined REI Monarch boots, with the assistance of an expert consultant. So her feet were nice and dry after wading through streams twice. After going through mud and now being dunked in a flowing creek, her Monarchs seem very happy that they found a worthy home.

Creek crossing

Around now it started snowing in earnest. And eventually we came to point in the trail that was blocked by fallen trees. So we turned around and head back.

snow covered hair

But, we also stopped to eat. S was thinking that lunch would be energy bars or sandwiches. But L thought that Pad Thai was a better choice. KL can say if this counted as an L cooked meal or not.

Chef at work

Trail cooked Pad thai

Happy customer eating pad thai

The return hike was smooth (after all, we had been there before). It was different, as the trees now had a highlighting dusting of snow, making for a Currier and Ives type scene.

Snow on conifer

We returned to the parking lot, with dirty, snow covered, muddy, wet boots.

Happy boots

And happy.

After picture

Saturday, December 15, 2007

(New York) Philharmonic Agrees to Play in North Korea [New York Times]

New York Times Permalink

On Tuesday, December 11, the highest ranking North Korean diplomat in the United States went to Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic. The purpose, to announce that the New York Phil will go to Pyongyang, North Korea, and play a concert. A concert that will be televised to a nationwide audience. And the New York Philarmonic will choose the program.

Now, some background. North Korea has the nickname of the 'hermit kingdom,' the most closed society on the planet. It has spared no effort to keep news of the outside world from its citizens, even the elite. Cell phones are officially banned. Its diplomats are required to leave family behind. News of even its neighbor South Korea is heavily regulated. And even the exchanges are heavily monitored (there is a presumption that the North Korean participants in the family contacts are well screened.) And in the midst of this, a world where culture and the arts are viewed as purely tools for promoting the political party, the New York Phil is going, and they will "play great music."

The commentary on the New York Times website is divided. Those that think that the New York Phil is pandering to a dictatorship by providing entertainment for the elite (one of the more interesting quarantines has been a quarantine of luxury items such as iPods, because it strikes at the elites instead of the general population.) There is precident. The Philadelphia Orchestra went to China in 1973, a country that was previously viewed as closed. And the Boston Symphony went to the Soviet Union in 1956, is the midst of some of the darkest days of the Cold War.

So, is this pandaring to a dictatorship? And if you have the view that the arts are pure entertainment that makes people feel good, this would be a good argument (see Orwell 1984 or Huxley Brave New World for another example). But there is another arguement that the arts also talk about what it is to be human. The tendency of closed societies such as the communists (when they really were communist) of the Soviet Union and PRC, the fascists of WWII era Germany, and numerous petty dictators over the years follows that belief. But to talk about what it means to be human goes beyond a political and economic identity.

Now, some biases. I am a product of western civilization and somehow I have built for myself a liberal education in its classic sense. I believe that the western classical arts have value and are used in communication of values and ideas (even if unaccompanied by words) (note: Pittsburgh people know me as a enthusiastic promoter of traditional asian performing arts, and I was a sometimes practitioner.) I believe in its underlying values, its strengths that are the product of centuries of learning from all cultures it comes in contact with and taking the values and ideas of those cultures and including them in the ongoing dialectic (thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis).

So, what do I believe happens when one of the shining stars of western fine arts, a product of centuries of experimentation, a globally based history, and tradition enters a closed society that has explicitly viewed the arts as a vehicle for political values. That society will see arts that tell a story, not of kings and armies and struggles, but of living a life of joy ("An American in Paris"), a people discovering a world (Dvorak No. 9 "From the New World"). And there is a belief that these are self evident, even without the words (although Mehta will present some exposition. With numerous Koreans on staff at the New York Phil, we can be assured that the translation will be accurate.) And, they will hear one of the greatest ensembles in the world play the North Korean national anthem. And by tradition, while the audience is still standing, the United States national anthem.

What is happening? The North Koreans are regularly reminded of American and Japanese atrocities in their education and museums. They are armed and drilled for what is understood to be an inevitable
invasion. One estimate is that 50% of the population of Pyongyang (the capital) have denounced someone a traitor (who then disappears). (these come from Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, written/drawn when Guy was a french animator working with a North Korean contractor).

And they will see a side of the outside world, that is not actively trying to conquer, rape and pillage. And this is something they have never seen. Will this be world changing? Who knows, there is noone who says that the visit of the Boston or Philadelphia symphonies to Moscow or Beijing in 1956 or 1973 changed the world immediately. But there is a strain of thought (that I subscribe to) that believes that when working with a closed society, all exposure is good. For that reason, exchanges with the old Soviet armed forces were always welcomed, Chinese Peoples Liberation Army - Navy ships are welcomed to Hawaii and Japan for port visits. And yes, the west was fully aware that these visits were occasion for espionage, but the glimpse of our world that those from closed societies got, and seeing a non-political part of the societies of the west (I'm obviously including Japan and North Korea in this) probably affected the old Soviets and Chinese more then any information they got. And there is a hope that the North Koreans will join the rest of the world some day, hopefully without self-destructing along the way. Every contact with the outside makes that easier.

Who knows, the North Koreans may even be told that the New York Phil is visiting their happy cousins to the south afterwards. That, of course, is highly unlikely.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shooting black & white

Last week was my sister's wedding reception in Asia. Hence my trip to Thailand, to go for the reception. And since I don't like trips where I spend very large portions of time transiting from place to place, I skipped on the Taiwan segments and went straight to Thailand.

It has been a long time since I went on a pure photoshoot, where the goal was to take good pictures. A lot of what I've taken recently has been record shots (I was ... with ...) pictures, only little artistic value. One principle in artistic development is forced constraints, place restrictions on the technical aspects and use creativity and skill to compensate. The last time I went to Thailand I took a manual SLR, three lenses and a single-focal length P&S (because I need some record pictures, this is a vacation). On this trip, I took along a compact digital zoom (again, I need some normal pictures), but for fun, I took the rangefinder, used one lens, and two rolls of B&W film.

Now, there is this massive list of things to do. So not really much time for simple shooting. But there were a few times where I could practice (I suppose I could have done the PJ thing as well when going around town, but I only brought two rolls of film, so I saved them for the wedding.)

I had a big break in the schedule one morning when my sister and fiancee were getting studio pictures done. So, I took his parents and brother to Lumphini Park. Which is so different then my usual view of Bangkok (lots of loud traffic, shopping malls of various flavors, Buddhist temples).

This picture is of a bridge in Lumphini park by where we had lunch. I should have taken a couple of shots of the food cart where we got our lunch as well. This shot is probably not framed all that well. I should have moved it either left (to get more of the bridge) or right) to put the focus on the pond) where it is (with the right edge of the bridge in the midpoint of the frame) makes this almost one picture trying to be two.

Bridge at Lumphini Park. I probably should have shifted the frame a bit to the left

This is of Silom Center, taken from across a pond. It would have been better if I underexposed a stop, and made the buildings darker. I would have lost detail in the leaves, but the vegetation is only for framing anyway. Also, I should have taken this from a few feet to the left, as I could have avoided having a branch come down in the middle (if I really cared, this is easily removable in digital form).

Silom Center from Lumphini Park.

For the wedding pictures, like all weddings nowadays, there are many people running around with digital cameras taking hundreds of pictures. Including two of my cousins and my brother-in-laws brother (who all had instructions to take lots of pictures.) So my ~50 shots are not too important as far as quantity is concerned. I think I'm the only one to get this, and having a rushed bride and a slightly worried mother (probably thinking of all the things that have to be done) I think works.

bride leaving home

The odd thing is, this is not completely posed (not from want of trying by the couple and the other photographer). When they got the couple-on-the-bridge picture, B mentioned something about looking at a tree, so they could get a nice classic picture of the hopeful couple looking off into the future while standing at something. And I asked "which tree?" So he pointed out the tree.

Look over there

This almost worked. There were several photographers taking pictures of them and this little building at the Wat. And I had found this little break in the shrubs to the side. My sister is stepping down from posing, and B just noticed I was there.
get in place

I liked this one. My grandmother (grandmother of the bride) is placing on the dots for a blessing on the groom. But my sister's eyes make the shot. It's nice using tools that get the picture exactly when you want it.

Grandmother giving a blessing

I thought that the people preparing the food should be photographed with their work. Just professional courtesy.
Preparing the food

Standard repertoire for PJ style wedding photography. Couple taking a break talking to each other.
Chat break at the wedding

And they actually had time to eat (after distributing party favors. There, they take a basket around to the guests instead of having the party favors sitting at each seat)
wedding couple actually gets to eat

My grandmother was so happy that week. Yes, she sees her great-grandson about weekly, but I think she is this happy every time.
Hello great-grandson

Another of the standard repertoire, child at end of wedding completely exhausted.
I'm tired

This is not at the wedding, but I thought the jackfruit had a nice texture that the black and white would bring out. And the film is not quite as completely washed out in the bright sunlight as the digital version.
giant jackfruit

All pictures here taken with Voigtlander Bessa R with 35mm/2.5 compact lens and Kodak T400 CN Max film.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Return to the Symphony

It has been many months since I've been to a Grand Classics concert. My fiancee (recent development) and I had dinner in the cultural district, the head to Heinz Hall. While looking on to a violin, flute, harp trio, we were greeted by a friend, the first of several for the evening. Of those who greeted us, some had not seen us since our engagement, and several had not seen me since my deployment to Afghanistan. The greetings were joyful and full of warmth. Even though I have not been in Pittsburgh that long, being greeted like that helps in calling this city my home.

It had been a long and tiring week for me, and I was not up to listening actively to the pieces like I usually do. Tonight was to let the sounds go by, and sense what I may. Corigliano came on stage before the concert to introduce his piece, discussing the style that was to come and all of the characters whose voices would be present. Normally I eat this up. Tonight, I was just too tired.

And as the orchestra made its way into "Phatasmagoria," I listened. I listened to ghosts speaking to one another across time. To voices remembering past glories, and dwelling on sadness. In the Elgar cello concerto I listened to a cellist and orchestra in dialog, sometimes supporting, sometimes sounding like questioning.

We head out after intermission (I really was tired) But on the way out we ran into dear friends who I had not seen since last spring. We talked of love and marriage, of going to war and return (interesting as a quick reading of the program tells me that the Elgar concerto was written with the backdrop of World War I). All the things of life, and strangely enough, a fit accompaniment to the program.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Birding in Thailand - 2007

On this Thailand trip, I brought binoculars as well as a couple of field guides. Primarily I used Craig Robson's Birds of Thailand, Princeton University Press. This is based on another work, A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, which is a bit bulky for carrying around in the field. I went birding in in Cha-am, Bangkok, and along the Chao Phraya River.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Rock Pidgeon Columba livia
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
Little Egret Egretta Garzetta
Oriental Magpie Robin Copsycus saularis
Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala
White-vented Myna Acrdotheres grandis
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Slender-billed gull Larus genei

And some pictures

Coppersmith Barbet
Coppersmith Barbet in Bangkok

White-vented Myna
White-vented Mynas over the Chao Phraya River

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret on the Chao Phraya

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Book Review: Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks

[ISBN 0143038915]

Fiasco takes a look at the run up to the American invasion of Iraq and the first years of the American occupation attempting to follow the thought and decision making processes of senior American political and military leaders. In the same vein of Bob Woodward's Plan Of Attack, Ricks is trying to paint a picture of how the American political and military establishments works (or does not). His picture is an ugly one, of a political establishment that is disfunctional in its ability to process information and tolerate dissent. His picture of the military is mixed, it is of a military that has a range of those who were inflexible, and those who were trying to learn how to fight a different kind of war, in a political environment that was resistant to learning.

One area that Ricks differs greatly from Woodward is in providing context. Both report on the words and explanations the principle participants used at various times to understand what information was available and the state of mind they received this information in. Ricks goes one step further and gives contextual information. The result is a damning indictment of the political establishment c. 2001-2005 in its misrepresentation of the information available and its protestations that the events were not expected and could not be handled better. His treatment of military leaders was mixed. He describes and Army that was fighting with the political establishment about the nature of war with mixed results. He shows some whose styles were utterly unsuited for this war amongst the people with its ambiguities (like Sanchez or Franks), and other who got it from the beginning (like Patraus and company) and others who learned along the way (like Odierno).

While Woodward seemed very conscious of telling "the first draft of history" and avoiding interpretation, and Atkinson in "In the company of soldiers" was telling a story, Ricks is writing a history, not letting the principles tell the story, but surrounding their words and actions with the context those words and actions appeared in. It provides many lessons in how decisions are made, arguments are won or lost, and the hazards of a political system resistant to dissent.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Thailand Travel notes 2007 2/2

Day 5 was the actual wedding. We went to Wat Benjamabopit where the monk who supervised one of my cousins time ordained was. An aunt had gone the night before and set up preparations for the wedding. At that point we found out that the monk in question was very engaged with the preparations, and had made plans on showing us around to the best spots to take pretty pictures.

J (brother of groom): Wow, he is really involved. I thought monks were supposed to renounce worldly things like marriage.
Me: Yes, but that is just for themselves. If religious people are not involved with important things like marriage, births and deaths, what society will support them? And weddings are much more fun then funerals. (there was a funeral on the grounds as well)

Cousin: Noone goes to the Wat (temple) for weddings anymore.
Me: That's why they are being so helpful, they are trying to associate coming to the temple with fun things like weddings and nice pictures, and maybe people will come more often.

We got there around 9, and the monk came and met us, and took us on a tour of the grounds to take, well, pretty pictures. There were some side building that were well decorated. Sides of temple buildings. A room with pictures of some historical leaders and statel wood fixtures.

The actual ceremony was next. 9 monks at the front. They had the chanting in Bali. The presentation of the triple gem as well as the five precepts. Then the feeding of the monks. Last, the blessing and the splashing of holy water. After the monks left, we had the water ceremony. One of the things that got noticed is J and I seemed not to have any duties as groomsmen. Although the two bridesmaids had their time to stand and look pretty (they prepare water for use by the many participants in the water ceremony, namely everyone present who was married. As there were only ~70 people present it was not too bad. At my other sister's wedding with 200+ people the girls were platooning this duty.) There were a few more pictures and lunch. And that was it. B (sister's now husband) was very happy. So was the bride (a good thing).

After getting back to the house, we changed, rested a bit, and B, my sister and J wanted to go shopping. But not the high end luxury shopping (which they saw in Taiwan), they wanted real "ghetto" shopping. I had brought them down a nearby Soi (side street) the night before that was still active. So I brought them to Mahboonkrong (MBK). MBK is an older mall, but nearby the really nice malls like Siam Paragon, Discovery Center and Siam Center. When you start at Siam Paragon and walk through, it is really obvious that each mall is aimed at a different audience. MBK is divided into zones. The first zone is like th other malls. As you go further, it becomes more old fashioned. And the last zone is like a bazaar, and we went at it. They enjoyed the haggling over everything. So did I. We got back on the BTS (train). Oh, first time B and my sister used the train system here.

Last day here we went to the floating market and the Samphram Elephant Grounds. Very touristy and not really remarkable in any way. But now on my way home.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Thailand travel notes part 1

Random, discombobulated travel notes

Early morning flight from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia Airport. First major task, getting from LaGuardia to JFK (where internationa flights originate). This was actually real easy, because I was pointed to a door, outside of which was a dispatch agent for the buses, who sold me a ticket for the bus that just pulled up. The bus driver was pretty new (I think). But the real highlight, I had a whole coach bus drive me to JFK all to myself. Personnal door-to-door service.

At JFK, while waiting for check-in, there was a guy with two women in front of me. The guy had run past me on the way in the terminal. It turned out that he was a pastor who was helping a member of his congregation and her mother. Her mother was heading back home to Thailand. But she does not speak english. So he asked "she can ask you if she needs help, right." At this point people who are aware of my command of Thai are laughing. Let's see, getting through security was fun. But the real fun thing was the survey that the New York Airport Authority was conducting. So here I am, trying to walk her through an 8-page survey. Which goes well beyond my Thai vocabulary. We actually got through 2/3 of the survey. At this point, we get the attention of a student from Mahidol university who was visiting the states. Between the three of us, we got it.

It was a very long flight, direct from New York to Bangkok. Something that probably was not even possible not all that many years ago (prior to the Boeing 777 and Airbus 340). The flight was to Suvarnabhumi, the new airport. The place is huge. The basic form is like an open tent over hallways and rooms. Think the new Denver airport, but about four of them put together. High ceilings (which probably helps a lot with the temperature control.) with lots of soft light (from the white, slightly translucent ceilings.

I saw my new friends while getting our luggage.

"Who is waiting for you?"
"My mom"
"How long are you going to be here?"
"I hope you meet a nice Thai girl."
"Thank you, but I already have a girlfriend."

Birds so far:

Barn Swallow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Common Myna
Rock Pidgeon
White Stork
Little Egret
Oriental Magpie Robin
Coppersmith Barbet

One of the pleasures of the trip was visiting college friends. I met with N and her son S at Emporium Mall by Phrom Phong station. And we used the easiest of landmarks, Starbucks. We went to a children's play area while N and I talked about all sorts of things of life. And we shared pictures. We met with her sister for lunch at the mall food court. At the time N and S went to the bathroom. So eventually this lady coming through just stops near the entrance (where I was) and starts looking around. After staring at each other for a few minutes we introduced ourselves. N was impressed that we figured out who each other was by ourselves. We had lunch (ba mii moo daeng). Afterwards I went to Siam Discovery/Center/Paragon/MBK to do some shopping and went home.

I met with my grad school classmate J Thursday lunch at Siam Paragon. We had dim sum at a plce that was to nice for dim sum. But it was good. In addition to the normal things, and some things that you hope for but are not always on the menu, there a durian pastry, that I had to get once I saw it. Very enjoyable catching up, talking about our socioligical observations of how Thailand has changed in the past six years, various aspects of marriage/divorce/relationships, lots of talking about advice we've gotten. And lists of things to do here. All the things that make us act as if we are human beings :-)

My sister and her fiancee + family came in that day. Today, while my sister went for photo studio pictures (it would take someone from Taiwan or Korea to properly appreciate what this means) I took J (his brother) and his parents to Lumpini Park. Bangkok in general is a loud and dirty place, but Lumpini Park is the city park, occupying the same relationship to the city as Central Park. So, in the middle of Bangkok, we went via BTS to a nice stroll in the park around a nice little lake. We also got lunch. So, not knowing where to get food we asked. In Thai. And the first person we asked was a foreigner who did not speak thai, and did not know anything about the area. At the same time, J struck a conversation with another expat couple out for a walk, and they also did not know anything about the area. Third time the charm, I spoke with a guy who ended up pointing us to a gate were there were hawkers (I think his daughter really wanted to jump into the conversation to practice her english) and so we went. There were a number of food stands. We used two of them. One was pretty easy, one of the people working the stand spoke english. The other was a little harder, especially since the one cook was busy. With two people working and a couple of young office ladies who were there helping us we figured out how to make an order. We brought the food to the park to have a nice lunch. Some of the people who we had asked for help walked by and we rejoiced in our success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review: What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland

What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland [ISBN: 0451528670]

This is about the listening of concert music, also called classical music (not to be confused with the classical period of music). Aaron Copland is best known as a composer, but he also delivered a series of lections on What to Listen for in Music, which became the heart of this book. The 2002 Signet Classic edition includes Copland's 1957 update (originally written in 1939), a forward by Alan Rich (1999) and an introduction by William Schuman (1988).

The book almost has to start by answering the question, why a book on what to listen for in music. There is the obvious answer "listen to a lot of music." And that is a truth that the book does state as well. But this is, as we say in mathematics, a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding. Listening to a lot of music gives a context, but not a language for discussing or thinking about it. Almost every field of understanding has a language that goes with the understanding of it. And knowing the language allows practicioners and others associated with the field to both communicate ideas for the growth of the field and the abilities of the individual.

By way of background, I tell everyone that as far as the fine art in general and music in particular, I know almost nothing. But somehow I got recruited to write on a regular basis for the local (Pittsburgh) Symphony Orchestra. As such, I am probably the epitome of appreciating and discussing music without any understanding of theory or history. (actually, many concertgoers without training probably have picked up much more history than I have.) So my writing, while focused more or less on the actual music, is restricted to what I hear and pay attention to.

Much of what I get from reading this is what can be expected, many things that I have picked up over time that are now expressed in words. I liked Copland's description of music as a collaboration between conductor, interpreter and listener. There are sections that discuss how to listen to melody as it gets passed from section to section. I especially liked the section on basso ostinato. It reminded me of a time listening to a friend preparing for a graduate recital, and pointing out a repeated bass line and giving suggestions about what can be done with it. And know I know what the words (basso ostinato) for what I could only describe before.

But a book is useless if all it does is repeat what is known. Starting with sections on four elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color; and going on to fundamental forms (sectional, variational, fugal, sonata, free) and additional chapters on some specific forms of music, it draws a map that can guide a listener. Interspersed throughout are identified movements and selections that illustrate concepts, and where I have them in my collection, I found myself listening to the selection while reading the relavent passage, and listening again. Each time hearing more then the last, or any time before. And the book promises that I can do this many times (at least with high quality pieces).

So, who is this for? Copland makes the point that this is a book written by a composer for listeners. Composers are expected to know much of this to a much deeper level, because it makes their craft more expressive (as well as provides a structure they can work in. It is much harder to write something without structure because you have to confront the tendency to make meaningless drivel.) It is not aimed at interpreters (performers) to the extent they are not also listeners. The book explicitly assumes technical proficiency beyond necessity. While there is discussion of the tension between the creative aspects of both composing and performing, the interaction between the two is probably better discussed in many other places. Likewise, the music critic is not served, as technical ability and interpretation are not properly discussed, as a critic is expected to do. And it is not a catalogue with listings of recordings. While many works are mentioned (and conveniently listed) reading this book does assume access to a reasonable music library in being. There are other introduction to classical music titles that provide descriptions of pieces and a history of music. This work is intended to train the ear, not a reference to fill the mind with facts.

It is aimed at the listener, for whom listening to music is its own purpose. The ones who hear the many layers, and wants the ability to hear the layers individually and as a whole. To be able to listen to a piece in the large as well as in the small. And to listen in such a way as a piece and recording of sufficient quality can be listened to many times, each time observing something never before heard.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Movie Review: No Reservations

No Reservations is about a Manhatten chef, who is a bit of a perfectionist. She is at the top of her game, the head chef at a high end restaurant. Very creative and proud of it. But she is tough on people. She is currently going to a therapist on her boss's orders, because she has a tendency to get very mad at customers who complain about the preparation of her dishes. Her sister and niece are coming in to town, and she has plans for evening dinner.

And her life changes. She gets a call at the restaurant an hour before she was expecting to get off. It is a doctor. Her sister is dead, and neice wounded. She gets to break the news. And she now has a child to raise. Something she is not good at. And a person whose approval she cannot just cast away. The first problem. Her neice won't eat anything she cooks (because it is definitely not kid friendly). And she goes back to the restaurant, but has a breakdown and her boss forces her to take a break for a week to figure out this parent stuff. And then the worst comes. She find out her boss hired a chef to cover for her. And she is woefully insecure and threatened. As she says "this is my life." The ironic thing, the replacement chef worships the ground she walks on and considers this a chance to work and learn from her (and he has a thing about not wanting to have his own kitchen, which is the usual dream for a chef.)

Things that are interesting. The female lead learning to accept other people into her life. Not being threatened by criticism (her boss makes the comment that "if you were not one of the best chefs in the city, I would have fired you." and her only thought "is she (her boss) trying to insult me by saying I'm 'one of the best chefs'?") She learns about being flexible with a child in her life. And she begins to accept that this other chef is not a personal and professional threat. (oh, this is obviously meant to be a romantic comedy, so Catherine Zeta-Jones character develops a romantic relationship with the other chef, pushed on by the niece, but that is almost incidental.)

Overall, very well done. All the characters are very human. The female lead, the male lead, the therapist, the boss, the coworkers at the restaurant, even the kid and the school principal. The leads are believable as driven creative types, whose personal lives are subsumed by their professional lives with all its competitiveness and suspicion (when you can have only one head of a kitchen).

Oh, and the cooking, oh how fun. The back of house scenes are as hectic and pressured as you would believe, but the cooking at home scenes are a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Donizetti's The Elixir of Love

AKA L'elisir D'amore by The Pittsburgh Opera

S and I went to the opera earlier in the week. First time I've been to the Pittsburgh Opera, and oddly enough, probably the first time I've been to a first rate professional opera. S had been invited, and although she did not take that invitation, we decided the night before that it would be fun to go. And S knows someone in the cast.

We arrived in the cultural district early, so after getting our tickets, we went to a nearby Starbucks to get tea and a scone. And we were greeted by someone we know from the PSO (is anyone surprised that we would be recognized in the cultural district?) who wished us a hearty 'Mazel Tov!' upon learning we were engaged. As performance time neared, and the PSO members left Starbucks, we made our way to the Benedum Center to take our seats.

I've been to the Benedum a couple of times, for performances of the Pittsburgh Ballet. Walking in, you have a hall that looks like it should host an opera (or ballet) right down (or up) to the chandelier and the gilt decorated walls. We walked up the many steps to our seats (we were in the cheap seats) and settled in for an entertaining afternoon.

The Elixir of Love is a comedy. The setting has been moved from an Italian village to a turn of the (20th) century midwest town a la The Music Man. We have the sophisticated and well read leading lady, who resists the wooing of a young man. A charlatan of a traveling salesman. The young man who is desparately wooing the sophisticated lady (as hero he is the tenor). And his rival in love (who is a bass) who is the dashing soldier. (the plot can be found at the link at the top.)

So, what is the purpose of transplanting the setting from the original rural Italy to rural America, after all, the libretto (lyrics) were not translated from the Italian, so you are still reading the supertitles above the stage if you want to know what is being sung. What is at issue (in addition to some level of relevancy, which I don't think is that big a deal) is the audience ability to understand what is happening. Just as in movies, an opera has the problem in that it has to tell a story, but only has a limited (ha!) amount of time to do it in. So movies or plays take care of this by providing a narrarator (or greek chorus) that can provide the backstory (think the opening crawl of Star Wars for an unsubtle example). Sometimes this is as a soliloquey (or a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song), sometimes in an early conversation between characters to provide the setting. Opera, because it is intended to be music, has more restrictions. So the setting provides the backstory. People who have seen The Music Man recognize the book reading as a sign of sophistication in the female lead (as well as the Disney Beauty and the Beast. It does not hurt that the original uses the same cue). Similarly, the charlatan traveling salesman is also readily identifiable. Dispite the language, you know that the sergeant is supposed to be an impressive specimen of manliness, and the ice cream salesman is probably not the epitome of success. And the story, with only a modest amount of attention, becomes understood and entertaining.

So, how would I consider this against the classical music (of all eras) that I've enjoyed for so many years? Of course, this is hardly a competition, as the forms are different. The biggest difference is the level of abstraction. As opera has actual words (and a setting and identifiable characters with characterizations) while instrumental music does not, it is obvious that classical music is more abstract. In itself, this does not mean any superiority. But there is a bit of forced thoughtfulness that is then required in the composition. And the need to transmit something (be it a story, an emotion, a feeling) without words to compensate for the separation between artist and audience imposes an intentionality to the work (actually, to be really honest, it does not impose the intentionality. But I tend to walk away from some such concerts wondering what I just sat through.)

To take a more accessible (evil word, there is nothing wrong with being understandable, as long as there is something meaningful to it) example, take photography. Photography changed painting because the aim of painting could no longer be purely representation of the physical world, because photography could always do a better job of that (and much more economically). And it is easy for anyone to think they are capable of taking pictures (even if they have to resort to the myth that all they need is properly expensive equipment.). But fewer think the same when using black and white. Because the additional level of abstraction (desaturation of color) forces the photographer to work with the other elements of the picture. And the task goes past making a visual record of something, to elements of composition, shape and texture. And the impact is greater. Not because of the impact of black & white per se, but the photographer who is practiced in black & white, has learned to create images in a different way (and this presumably carries over to any color work the photographer does). There are other areas that this happens. Computer programming is recognized as a craft that improves greatly as the programmer understands and applies greater levels of abstraction. The creative sides of business, engineering, law, social science all show the same (as opposed the technician view of all those professions that only looks at the application of techniques to a situation.)

But getting back to opera, while entertaining, I don't think I will be putting on the same level of attractiveness as instrumenal classical music. Because the additional abstraction appeals to me. To listen to a piece and wonder what was the story going through the composer's head, to observe my mind respond on an emotive level, and appreciate why it did so, to hear an artist work with a piece and take ink on a page that has been passed through centuries to create something slightly different then any performance before or since. This is something worth having and seeking in my life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fire call as lead

*beep* *beep* *beep*
"Hello, this is ___ from the Red Cross. Did you page me?"
"One moment, lets see what I have for you. There is an electrical fire in A"
"I have a phone number for 911 at xxx-xxx-xxxx."
"Ok, thank you."
"Hello, this is ___ from the Red Cross, I got a message about a fire in A"
"Yes, there are N people. The address is xxx. How long before you can get there? . . . They will be at the xxxx waiting for you."

My first call as a team leader (in training). Had to call the team, a supervisor (since I'm only in training), and bring all the paperwork with me. One team member is very experienced (a lot like I am as a disaster action team member), the other was on her very first call.

Some parts of the call were easy. Like the borough was taking care of the clients before we arrived and provided a nice place for everyone to stay while we made arrangements. Some were difficult, like the fact that the child:adult ratio was rather high.

I've been doing this for a while now. There is a difference between being the proactive team member and being the leader who is actually responsible for everything. A lot more stress, and more things going through my head at one time. Some things went very well, and some things were just chaotic (and I have to learn how to organize my things better.) But all a part of my education. And it was very apprciated by client and fellow emergency workers (and fellow Red Crossers) alike. A good (if eventful) evening.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Review: The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

IMDB link

This is a movie that is set during the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War that follows. It follows two brothers, Damian and Teddy in County Cork.

The movie shows the brutality of the British occupation, with the paras (paramilitary) Black & Tans terrorizing the countryside looking for Republicans (Irish Republican Army) and the effect of this, namely outraged irishmen signing up for the IRA. There is the brutality of the British occupation, and the terrorism of the IRA against those irish who were suspected to cooporate with the British. In it all, Damian (who was going to study to be a doctor before witnessing the needless killing of a friend and the beating of a rail engineer) openly observes his character changing, to the point where he executes a childhood friend as a collaborator.

The violence and brutality make the war personal for many. And after independence is granted, the movie moves on to the next stage of the Irish suffering, the Irish Civil war, fought because some, like Damian, wanted a complete break with Great Britain, not just being a republic in the commonwealth.

And you see Ireland cry in the eyes of the priests who watch a country they had prayed for borne, and shatter from within. And like other civil wars, pits brother against brother.

You ask, what is it that drives men to go to war? What are the ideals that drive them to kill, not just the strangers and outsiders, but those they have known and even fought alongside. During the sections on the Irish Civil War, you see scenes that repeated those of the war for independence. And it seems senseless in this era where the hand of Great Britain lies very lightly on the commonwealth (to this the Canucks, Aussies and Kiwis would laugh at the idea that the British yoke is heavy), but back then the passions of the people were high. And you go away sad at the senselessness of the civil war, for the cause of the perfect instead of the good.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Open source develop: assertAlmostEqual

I've been working on a project at work while using Python/Jython. And I'm using unittesting to drive and test the development along the way. Because I deal with things like real data, the usual assertEqual runs into problems when you use floating point computation, because you just don't test for equality in floating point. To much potential for rounding errors at the 20th digit or some other insignificant problem. So you need to use assertAlmostEqual.

And everything is working fine, until I try to run my tests in Jython. And then all my floating point tests start to fail, because assertAlmostEqual does not exist. So, did I spell it wrong, but it worked under normal Python. So a quick google search reveals that assertAlmostEqual was added a bit later, so it was not in Python 2.2 (which Jython is written against). And there is a newsgroup posting in the Python-checkins list about the adding of assertAlmostEqual to the PyUnit testing library (which is what I use for my unit tests).
Sat, 28 Dec 2002 22:11:50 -0600
[Python-checkins] python/nondist/sandbox/twister,1.1,1.2

Raymond> To accomodate single precision platforms, only test to seven
Raymond> digits.

The SciPy folks have added an assertAlmostEqual method to their unit tests.
I believe it more-or-less just wraps what you've done in a callable method
(which takes a number of digits of precision). Might be a good idea to add
something like it to so the wheel doesn't keep getting
reinvented. They actually have a few variants, coded as functions here:

Ok. That explains that. But something else looks oddly familiar. I remember doing something with SciPy around the same time

Sun Jan 20 21:38:03 CST 2002
[SciPy-user] unittests for scipy.stats: assert_almost_equal question
Hmmm, I think that I would like to be testing in terms of
significant digits as opposed to decimal places, especially when
working with floating point. Since you are asking for such a test,
here it is. The attached file has a function meant to go into the module. I wrote assert_approx_equal following the
same form as assert_almost_equal
compares 'actual' and 'desired' and determines the first
'significant' significant digits and checks for accuracy. Let's
see, I think I counted significant digits correctly. Can anyone

> From: "eric"
> To: <scipy-user at>
> Subject: Re: [SciPy-user] unittests for scipy.stats:
> assert_almost_equal question
> Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2002 05:36:31 -0500
> Organization: enthought
> Reply-To: scipy-user at
> Hey Louis,
> A thousand blessing upon you. I immediately commited it to the
> CVS!
Oh, now I know why this problem looks so familiar. Way back when I was a grad student, I was trying to test some functions. And I ran into the problem about unittesting floating point. So I wrote unittest code to test floating point in SciPy. And it was added to SciPy. And the main Python language developers noticed (since those folks looked to the SciPy/Numpy folks about all things numerical computation related) and added it to the main language. And here I am, five years later, taking advantage of something I did as a grad student.

Add to reasons for "why contribute to open source programming" story.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Computer development platform Part 2

Last month I started working on a model development aspect of a project. And I figured I'd take the time to learn the use of a new toolkit for programming. An update.

I had a project meeting yesterday that went very well. The approach was sound. The work on the model that I've done already has uncovered issues that have not been addressed by prior work, and this is going to lead to major policy recommendations. All the things that a model developer hopes will happen.

In addition, discussion uncovered some details in the system being modeled that I did not realize (helps when multiple heads get together to tease details out). And we are talking deployment when all is said and done. So, I have a few issues:
  1. The business logic of the model needs to be modified to handle my improved understanding of the process.
  2. A number of additional scenarios need to be considered, preferably without breaking anything else.
  3. The whole thing needs to be deployable. And that usually means MS Excel, a Visual Basic application, or Java (because these are things that can be sent to any computer without much trouble)
Number 3 leads to an additional complication. I've been developing the whole thing in Python, using Eclipse. I'm going to decide that for deployment, I will convert the whole thing to Jython, since that makes it deployable on a Java Virtual Machine (and everyone has Java installed). But Python is at version 2.5, while Jython is at version 2.2, so it is a couple years behind.

Well, this whole thing just screams out, unit testing. As it turns out, I've separated the building block objects from the business logic portions and the database access, which makes the whole thing easier. So, I build my test suite in PyUnit that takes the specifications and builds the model. Then the fun starts.
  1. I was still working on the business logic that allocates resources. It was messy, but it did provide output. So I wrote test cases that tested discrete stages along the way and rewrote the logic into smaller functions.
  2. Converting to Jython broke some functions, because newer versions of Python had some features that were not in Jython (some forms of introspection). So, I had to rewrite these so they worked under the older language specification, without breaking my test cases.
  3. Next on the list, write test cases that implement some of the newly described scenarios, and make them work.
Some of this involved serious work. In particular, rewriting the code to version 2.2 vs. 2.5. Right before I did this, I did a commit to version control (Subversion) just in case I completely messed up. The IDE also helps alot since it takes care of version control, checking Python and Jython, and running the unit tests.

A very productive day. I almost think that I'm getting the hang of this programming stuff.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cold Brew Coffee: Attempt # 1

My fiancee was complaining about coffee withdrawal. And one thing we share is a love for good coffee. But doctor's orders. But I half remember that there is a way to make less acidic coffee. And a bit of research revealed cold brew coffee.

The basic premise is the acids and oils are extracted from the coffee bean by the hot water in the brewing process. But cold water will still extract the coffee flavor, without the acids and oils. It just takes a little longer. Like hours instead of minutes. Now, you could buy the Toddy system (created by a guy named Tod) that does this. But that just seems silly. So I figured I'd use my french press for this. Because that is what a french press does, allow ground coffee to soak in water. And I could sacrifice use of my french press for a day. After all, it is going for a good cause.

1. Grind coffee on coarse (i.e. French Press style) for 6 cups worth. I was using Agate Pass Blend from Grounds for Change (a medium-roast bean)
2. Add 1/3 of the ground coffee to the French Press. Add water and ensure that the ground coffee is soaking (i.e. not clumping). Wait 5 minutes
3. Repeat (2). Wait 5 minutes and repeat again with the remainder of the coffee and fill the French Press beaker. If needed, mix gently to ensure the coffee is soaking.
4. Cover press and set aside at room temperature. Time 8:38 AM.
5. Time 10:30 PM. Use French press to separate out the grounds. Pour coffee concentrate into Lexan bottle. Yields 700 ml of concentrate. Refridgerate (for storage. If this was morning, I would have a cup and store the remainder.)

First batch of cold brew coffee

The next morning I made myself two test cups of coffee. The first cup was done at 1 part coffee to 2 parts water (that had been brought to a boil.)

Cold brew coffee 1 to 2

It was ok. Like normal drip coffee (which I find to be weak).

So next I tried again, at 1 part coffee to 1 part water.

Cold brew 1 to 1

Well, this did taste ok. But a bit cold. Next time I should heat up the coffee concentrate first, to make it warmer.

Trial #2

So, after delivering batch #1, try again. This time I set the grinder on a setting halfway between what I use for drip and what I use for French Press.

Brew from 6:00 PM to 7:15 AM. Since it is a finer grind, pour the concentrate through a filter to strain out the silt. This time I filled the French Press up a bit higher so it yielded 800 ml of concentrate.

Prepare at 1 to 1, first microwaving the concentrate before adding the hot water.

It is a decent cup of coffee. Very smooth. Not as flavorful as I would like, but that is probably because of the oils and acids not being in the coffee.

Supposedly, cold brewing coffee yields 1/3 the acidity of drip coffee and people whose stomachs are affected by drip coffee can take this. Hopefully the customer is happy.

Monday, November 05, 2007

In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson is a historian, who sometimes works for the Washington Post. He took a break from writing his WWII trilogy to be embedded with the U.S. 101 Airborne Division with then Major General Petraeus during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq during 2003.

It is an engrossing picture of a military commander in the midst of a war. The emphasis on logistics (his subordinate commands have to deal with tactics). All the little things that need to be ready. The things that an army prepares out of practicality, even when the political leadership says something completely different (e.g. grappling hooks, battering rams and ladders for urban fighting, when the political and military leadership tells all the U.S. Army does not fight in cities).

When the actual fighting starts, you soon realize that the shooting is elsewhere while the commanders are dealing with other aspects of reality. The maintenance of equipment. The changing and unexpected tactics of the opponents (there is a precious vignette that surrounds General Wallace's quote "this is not the enemy that we wargamed against", and the many generals who said they needed many more troops to do the job right. Both were severely chastized by the political leadership. Both were viewed by those with experience in war as being straightforward and open.) Having to deal with details great and small, unexpected events, the plans of the enemy, and the pressures of a national leadership that may or may not be aware of reality.

It is easy to forget that the senior leadership in war are men themselves. The myriad of details is something impossible to comprehend, and the genius of those who can put it all in their heads, even with the assistance of an able staff, is intimidating to behold. "In the Company of Soldiers" does this well. Not a beatification, but a portrait of a man and an army at war.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Beauchamp and the Rule of Second Chances: Pass it Along

At Michael Yon

A few months ago a soldier wrote an article for The New Republic about his ongoing experiences as a soldier in Iraq. He wrote about the activities of his unit. And it was full of stories of how sadistic, cruel, uncaring they had become while deployed to war in Iraq. And for those soldiers who did not become sadistic, how apathetic they became to the violence and depravity around them. Almost like a Hollywood movie about Vietnam with all the expected stereotypes and more. And, as it turned out, completely untrue. Essentially, this soldier wrote the story, and as the editors understanding of war essentially came from Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war, the fact checking was rather spurious.

Now, as the article came out in a prominent forum, the real fact checking began. And in addition to the fact that the stories were false, one other fact that came out was the writer's name. And his unit.

So now we have a problem. Here is a soldier in a combat zone. And he has written an article in a major national magazine that depicts his fellow soldiers as a group of depraved psychopaths. Back in the states, there are individuals writing on internet message boards that he should be punished. Severely. The wolves were calling out for blood. And he is surrounded by the people whom he dragged through the mud. And they all have guns. And they regularly see combat.

So, his company commander gives him a choice. Does he want to transfer. And his commander tells him something else. He is welcome to stay. And he did so.

No doubt there was some awkwardness there. A soldier having to face people whom he had publicly painted as cruel dimwits, when none of the events he described. And it probably was not a pretty thing, of going to battle with people whose relationship is, well, not the best. But there are other realities here. And part of this is the nature of war.

As a society, we (Americans) are generally not a forgiving bunch. Our churches, which like to use words like 'grace' and 'reconciliation' feel free to throw people away (at least the churches I've been to) and forget them as if they did not exist. Our polity is one where perceptions replace truth. And many things are unforgivable. Where disputes are solved by demonizing.

But when life and death is at stake, there is another principle. You have to be able to trust that the person next to you will sacrifice on your behalf. Because you depend on them for your life. And you realize that person, just by being there, also depends on you for theirs. And there are many other things like this, even in non-lethal environments. The fact that there is a common goal overcomes mistakes.

Part of the way we have changes is the separation of our lives from reality. As a society, we have valued a buffer between ourselves and the world, and attempted to insulate ourselves from the pain, hurt, suffering. And along the way sacrifice, trust, and caring for one another have gone as well. There is a saying "no good deed goes unpunished." and a reality that those who would consider helping others, are told that to save a life, is to put your future at risk, and that it is better to turn away from the one in danger, and leave them to their own devices.

With this soldier, for all he has done wrong, there is an understanding that he is there. He still goes out into harms way, alongside others that he is trusting his life with. And they are trusting their lives with him. There may be no way to "pay" for his mistakes. But he is still a comrade in arms. And a very different reaction then "pulling out the hanging rope" for every mistake. It is a different attitude. One of the things observed with the number of soldiers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now a large pool of people who are Heinlein's human being.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

So the question, are these enough people who can change a society by their presence? People who are not as self-absorbed, self-righteous, insulating themselves from their environment and others in their faux self-reliance that American society has become. Or will these returning soldiers become examples of people who remember what it is like to stand alongside people from all walks of life, and to depend on one another to succeed and survive.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What I did last Saturday

AKA the engagement story

Lighted sentinals

I'm given to understand there is a much better story teller who may be available to you. But, here is my version.

1. Morning - Woken up at 5:00 AM to go to a house fire on the South Side. And by the time I get to the Red Cross, I find out there was a second fire on the North Side. Go and perform damage assessment, case work with clients, and get home around 9:00 AM, and go to bed.

2. Woke up, again, around 12 Noon. Afternoon was with S at a house warming party of a former neighbor of mine (Hi R and T). We ate real well, with home cooked Thai food that I have not had in years. And there were lots of kids running around (they ranged from 21 months to 6 years, yes, they were running). I cooked an apple cobbler for dessert. S played the piano (very happy piano).

3. After being stuffed with Thai food, we went to Phipps Conservatory, where we went to the Chihuly exhibit (glass sculptures in garden [ok, I'll skip some not so necessary details, but the blog post is titled "What I did last Saturday"]). It was open that evening because, well, Chihuly glass sculptures that are lit a night in a gardenare rather romantic-y sort of things, so gardens can make a lot of money with all the couples who like going on walks in lit gardens with beautiful glass sculptures around. Or so I am led to understand (I'm a member, got to understand these things.)

4. When we were done, there was this one sculpture that I suggested might look real nice close up, which would require going outside. Where there was a very handy bench that looked into the proper window.

5. And, yes, said sculpture looked very nice. And I asked S if she would marry me. And I gave her a certain ring that I had in my pocket. Which also looked very nice.

6. Oh, she did say "yes"

Congratulations on making it to the end. And thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I wonder if anyone reads this

Something shiny given away
Originally uploaded by LugerLA
If so, this may be interesting news (understanding that reasonable people may disagree). Anyway, as of last week, S and I are engaged.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith link

General Rupert Smith (UK, Ret.) wrote this after reflection on 40 years of service, including UN duty in the Balkans. The theme of the book is that the nature of conflict has changed, and those who think about the use of national power (diplomatic, information, military, economic). Smith identifies 6 major trends:

- The ends for which we fight are changing
- We fight amongst the people
- Our conflicts tend to be timeless
- We fight so as not to lose the force
- On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons
- The sides are mostly non-state

As he discusses the evolution of modern conflict, and the information(media) and intelligence focus (as opposed to purely physical) of future conflict, he has as a backdrop the United Nations intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s. And the ineffectiveness of the UN forces there, culminating in the massacre of 7,000+ Bosnians by the Serbs in the "safe area" of Srebrenica. Smith points out that the UN members essentially employed a tactic (use of blocking forces) to counter a strategy (Serbian desire to dominate the Balkans) and the Serbians used a wide range of means (propaganda, military, diplomatic) to make the UN military forces irrelevant.

Smith is mostly documenting a problem, one that he views as difficult, and something for U.S. and western nations need to deal with. Because as long as there is a desire to have a world that is not full of the arbitrary violence, ethnic massacres, generators of hate, the west and those that have allied with them will ask their militaries and other instruments of power to enter these parts of the world. And these militaries will have to learn how to operate in these settings. Smith's challenge is that they be sent in a thoughtful way, that the ends are considered with the quality, quantity and purpose of the forces made appropriate to the ends desired. And just how you decide this, are lessons yet to be learned.

This is not an easy book to read. Every passage is meant to be read, then the consequences of every idea thought through. Even the descriptions of historical events have to be mulled in consideration of many facets and the environment around them. But the reader is rewarded with many considerations of thought and issues to debate. And a context for reading anything else in this subject area.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why is the use of anthropology a contentious issue?

From an Anthropological Perspective

There has been a debate that has been going on for years among social scientist, in particular anthropologists. Should anthropologists cooperate with the military (or any other government organization for that matter)? The negative side points out that anthropology was created as a colonial tool (to put it bluntly) and that as a discipline, they should repudiate all such work. The affirmative side argues (1) pretty much everything in applied anthropology causes effects on the society examine, whether on behalf of corporate interests, or non-profit (whose motives don't always look much more noble then the colonial white-man's-burden) (2) the negative side seems to imply that anthropology should not be used to mitigate or prevent cultural damage. If they can't do that, what is the use of anthropology (other than for corporations to exploit people or non-profits to manipulate a society)? I'm being slightly simplistic here. The link provides a much more nuanced view. Searches for 'anthropology' and 'military' should find articles in the New York Times, the BBC and various anthropology and military sites.

In one sense, the issue is somewhat moot. The military (at least the American tradition) is bound to fill the mission given to it by its civilian leaders. If accomplishing that mission is best done by having people study the society that exists in the environment to avoid the use of destructive force when it can be avoided, the military would do so. Whether or not people who have the word "anthropologist" in their resumes are involved is quite irrelevant. Even if it would make things easier if there were some at hand. (if not, the military will make do with who they can find who is available.)

There is a bigger question on the anthropologists side. What is the role and substance of ethics? Is ethics an avoidance of labels that don't sound nice? Is ethics a list of "thou shalt nots." Are both the ends and the means irrelevant, if the perceived "ultimate end" is "wrong" (the quotes are because the "ultimate end" and "wrong" are not as defined by the doer, but by an uninvolved party who has noone's interests in mind, namely the anthropological profession, which is divided.)

In general, this is probably the problem with ethics, especially as practiced in non-practitioner settings. Ethics tends to be discussed as what is wrong, not what should be done. In other words, what not to do. And the principles that are seized on to decide the what not to do become absolute and definitive. To the exclusion of all others. Including human life. In my interaction, people will hold to these principles even when the life that is to be lost has been identified (which is the case here as well.)

For many professions, the focus of training is on what (and how) to do. In an environment where everything is focused on acting, negatively based ethics quickly becomes irrelevant. (i.e. the U.S. Army will study the cultures it works among to determine non-destructive ways of solving conflict, regardless of the collective decision of the anthropological community.) And the members of the academic disciplines that would prefer to actual engage their world for positive ends, rather than withdraw to avoid breaking rules, or look for areas of activity that are not addressed (such as social anthropology by marketers and advertising), are faced with professional isolation, or creating a new profession.

Friday, October 12, 2007

and at night you become a superhero - and other quotes

I spent the last weekend doing a lot of emergency service work, both as a ham radio operator at the Head of the Ohio and for a Red Cross exercise. Some quotes:

"Next time there is someone who is vitally important to the running of the whole show and she refuses a shadow, give her one anyway."

Me: "Hi. I'm your shadow. Your not allowed to get lost anymore."

Me: "You are going to sit down, under a tent, in the shadow, and I am going to watch you drink this bottle of water and eat a protein bar." (at 3PM, on a very hot day)

"I told them that they needed to turn around, and they started telling me how the river was free for everyone. Then I told them that is ok, and the Coast Guard will be coming by to talk to them. They said, 'The Coast Guard?!' Yes, the same U.S. Coast Guard that issues your licenses and put up the Notice To Mariners that is on your marina board saying that the river is closed today, and has been broadcasting messages on Marine Radio every half hour telling you that the river is closed. And they are coming to you."

Coast Guard: "Oh, we saw them. And we stopped to chat. And they were very agreeable."

Coast Guard: "I think we will go over there and say hi. And discourage anyone from heading in the river too fast."

Actress playing resident who was not quite all there and was trying to 'escape': "I want to go for a walk."
Me: "Oh fun, I want to go for a walk with you. Over here is a go outside for a walk place (pointing at a door that led to a courtyard, that was not out)"
Actress: "Oh, you're no fun. I can't even be mean to you."

Actress from a previous exercise: "Hi, remember me?"
Later in the day: "I'm hurt, you were avoiding me all day."

Disaster volunteer: "I work in marketing, it is so boring."
Me: "So then at night you put on your Red Cross shirt and become a superhero."
Volunteer: "I should show you what my phone says. 'Wonder Woman'"

Monday, October 08, 2007

[Chicago Tribune] Man dies in heat-shortened (Chicago) marathon

Chicago Tribune article

My sister sent me a text message yesterday letting me know that the Chicago Marathon was shortened. Other than my general interest in running marathons, I did try to enter this one back in May, but it was already full.

So, the issues, other then the obvious. Actually, one person dieing is not enough cancel an event like this. Or even to dissuade potential participants. People participate in physical events because of the harsh reality that they represent. Most people live in worlds that are governed by perception, not reality. Activities in the physical world such as running, bicycling, backpacking, etc. are a forum where reality and truth are incontestable, and the laws of the natural world provide a court that is often without appeal. And the grim fact is, you need to acknowledge this on the course. (this does not really apply to school athletic teams. For high schools and colleges, part of what the kids are learning are these very limits, and coaches are supposed to be teaching this, and about other aspects of the realities of life.) Those who can't or won't acknowledge this, suffer and sometimes die.

But the bigger issue is what is going on outside the race. Reports are that 315 runners were removed by EMTs for heat-related conditions, and 146 people were taken to hospitals. That many hospitalizations due to a single event is known as a disaster. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago activated the patient connection program, which is usually done for major disasters. And realizing that it was going to get worse, as the morning went into early afternoon, turning off the clocks and telling people to walk was acknowledging reality as emergency rooms throughout the city and suburbs took in patients.

No doubt that this as well as the Rotterdam (?) marathon that were cut short earlier this year will be case studies for all those who organize these types of events. One thing I've been learning as I get older, and see these events from the points of view of participant, organizer, emergency support, communications, etc. is seeing how all these different priorities are balanced out. And how people make tough decisions.

Book Review: Usagi Yojimbo - Fathers and Sons

(written at Goodreads: Amazon link)
The hero, Usagi, is a ronin (unattached samurai) in a historical Japan after the great wars. As such, he is in the midst of a time of change, which much conflict, but most of it is not in the open. The social order is changing, and Usagi is finding his place in it. Along the way, he is joined by his son, Jotaro. But Jotaro does not realize he is Usagi's son, and knows Usagi as an uncle.

In this volume and volume 18 they travel through Japan to Jotaro's new teacher (who was Usagi's teacher). Along the way they meet many of Usagi's friends, encounter those who are also trying to carve out places for themselves in a new Japanese society (some of them through intimidation and violence), and other fathers, who are also trying to provide for and teach their sons the ways of the world and their place in it. One recurring bit of amusement occurs when Usagi's friends and others that encounter them along the way identify Jotaro as Usagi's son, even as they are introduced to Jotaro as a nephew, as they observe how they interact with each other.

Stan Sakai creates an engaging world with characters that are rich in motivation and backgrounds. Many lessons are taught and learned. Many mistakes are made, and there is even nobility and courage. And when you are done, you wish them well, those that continue their journey, and those that are left behind.

There is a strain of the arts that presents the purpose of the arts is to present the human condition, in its richness, grandeur, and in the mundane. And this is a fine example of this.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Shadowing The Head of the Ohio

The Head of the Ohio (HOTO) was this past Saturday. (Hi Jonathan) Like the other Head of . . . races, it is the capstone of the rowing season for Pittsburgh, and probably the biggest event of the year. In Pittsburgh, the main sponsoring organization seems to the be the Three Rivers Rowing Association. I was there as amateur (ham) radio support to the race organizers, and I was shadowing the volunteer coordinator. Regattas like this all have a similar structure. Most people thing of these as intercollegiate (or even high school) events, because most of us get exposed to this because of our college friends who row crew. But these are bigger. Unlike most sporting events, the Head of . . . series are a lot more then one division. There are high school, collegiate, and club teams competing (each in their own division) and they do it together.

There are lots of sports/activities that make claim to being like family. This bunch has as good a claim as any, as you see an entire cross section of ages at these. The high school and college students (like you expect), the high school parents, but you also get the adults who row who like to race. And their families (both younger generation and older generation.) the result is even the high school kids get to see a whole community of people, all taking part in the same activity at various levels. And these people have been around each other for years (especially the club rowers), so the usual high school athlete parent gets integrated with a large community that his/her child is being brought up into, a community of adults the child can respect on many levels, and all eager to be present as they mature.

So what do you see at such things? With such a cross section of people, engaging each other in a very public place, a wide range. In addition to the usual frustrations and joy of working with a wide range of people in a big event, you see generosity, selfishness, grace under pressure, people cracking under pressure, the range of motivations, courtesy, response to discourtesy, deciding what battles to fight, and which ones not to. How to influence others without using authority. How to use authority wisely (and effectively). A whole host of lessons. Both for the kids, and for the not very old (like me) to learn. And many people who are hoping we (including me) learn them, so as we take our places in the community, we are able to take their places.

This was my second event as part of Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). And this was the classic scenario. Radio operator shadows official, provides multi-modal communications between official and others, sometimes when other modes are not operational. There were various fires (metaphoric) to be put out. Minor crisis. And one medical. Oh, and a couple older hams who could explain what they did, how they did it, and a bit of institutional knowledge that comes from doing things over years. And yes, there are a couple roles that I could be playing in that community in the years to come, if I stick around and get more training and experience. These are people who know how to look into the future.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Computer development platform

Well, I've started modeling work on a project at work. So far it has been data gathering planning (what kind of data do we need) and asking lots of questions about the system I'm trying to model. And, while that is not over, now that I'm back in Pittsburgh, time to get started. Right now, I'm actually doing the "make the first one to throw away" thing. Because this is so amorphous, I'm not sure just how to solve this just yet anyway. I told the project manager this, and he actually likes the idea as a risk management principle. (because version 2 is supposed to be deployable, let's just forget about that until I have a model that works, then worry about making it deployable)

Now, a lot of this is the fact that I'm working in a domain that not too many modelers have gone in. Slides that I've built for presentations in the past have gotten real good reception, as people who have seen this get the idea, and the possible impact. Of course now I have to deliver.

Since I get to work on that most idealized of environments, clean slate and zero previous work to build on, I thought I would actually try to do things right. And take the opportunity to build up a new tool chest. For now, documentation is in LaTeX, with Dia to build up flow charts and UMLish diagrams. I'm reading Head First Design Patterns by Freeman and Freeman, and some ideas have gotten in my head.

For the model building, there is an idea in the back of my head that deployment will be inside MS Excel and Visual Basic (because everything quantitative is deployed inside MS Excel and Visual Basic). But because the tools are just hard to develop in, and it quickly turns unmanageable, even when done right, I'll probably use Python and/or R to develop the initial model. One big benefit is the various algorithm libraries that are readily available in Python and R as well as the automatic documentation tools like Docstrings, PyUnit and Sweave. And I've actually used all of them.

For the tool chain, LaTeX and Dia and Python. But, since I had to get a new laptop anyway, and needed to reinstall my tools, why not try something new. I'm doing almost everything inside of the Eclipse IDE, specifically the EasyEclipse version of it. In addition to Java development (which I may end up doing non of, unless I switch into Jython), it handles LaTeX (through TeXlipse), Python, through Pydev), database access, and version control through Subversion. First time I've used many of these tools before. It is rather nice. TeXlipse is much better then the JEdit or Vim that I've used in the past since it does command completion, and it seems even better then TeXnicCenter that I did my thesis in. Having version control as an integral part of the IDE is wonderful. I've tried it in the past and it just got too bulky, even with a graphic interface. Now it is just a button click. Auto-build in Eclipse is nice too. Having a window with the results updated with every save means near-realtime feedback. Since Dia saves diagrams as XML, that works in a version control system also. So all my notes, the documentation, diagrams and the source code will all be in version control. I almost feel like I know what I am doing with this development thing.

Of course, the real fun starts next. Going from all my diagrams to actual code and data.

Booknerd stuff

I just put in a first batch of books into Goodreads. So, where did I start (anyone who has seen my apartment or looked at my boxes when packing to move realizes that this is a serious undertaking)? I started with all 36 books that I have reviewed on Bookshelved

One thing that means is for this first batch, I have real reviews actually written up. So I'll probably get them moved over to Goodreads soon, and I'll actually have content.

Anyway, this sort of stuff is somewhat more valuable if people I know were on it. In particular, people who read books that I may like. So, if you read things about:

current affairs
science fiction
computer (programming and software design)

Well, it would be nice to see you on it. (oh, yeah, most of my book club is already on there. No, we do not read books on any of the above topics in my book club.) Oh, and invite me :-)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Book social network: Goodreads, Shelfari, iRead, LibraryThings ??

Something that caught my eye, social networks for reading. Ok, what first got me was my fellow book club members inviting me onto Goodreads. And Goodreads is on Facebook as well. Now, in the past, I have put my book reviews on Bookshelved. But I don't actually know anyone else on there in real life. And there is a rather high effort required to enter a book (you have to create a page on a wiki. And I feel obligated to write something somewhat serious.) But these networks with their automatic linking to other people that you know seems to be interesting.

So, all of you book readers, question: Are you on one of these networks and are you putting up book reviews (either star ratings or actual reviews)?

The big ones I've found are Goodreads, iRead, LibraryThing, Shelfari. Of these, iRead is ONLY on Facebook (a big negative to me). Goodreads and Shelfari can be subscribed separately from Facebook, but can be integrated. Goodreads also has a widget like Flickr does to put a sidebar on a web site like Blogspot sites. LibraryThings I think has a fee after 200 books (I think I'm going to get above that eventually). And I rather like the idea of Facebook integration.

Right now, it seems I have friends on Goodreads and iRead, but I'm curious as to what other people are doing before I go through the effort of putting books on them.

Pittsburgh Great Race Sunday 30 September 2007

Running for Joe
Originally uploaded by LugerLA
Another running of the Great Race, the capstone race in the Pittsburgh season now that the marathon is no longer being run. This will be my third running (and I arrived in Pittsburgh a year too late to run the marathon). The biggest difference, I only ran the 5K instead of the 10K.

S, A and I took the bus from downtown to Oakland at the starting line on Fifth amidst the University of Pittsburgh and the behemoth of UPMC. Some highlights:

The Pitt Men's Glee Club singing the national anthem, straight up. Just the way I like it. You can play with "God Bless America" all you want, but the "Star Spangled Banner" is impressive by itself.

Mayor Luke greeted the runners, noting that his wife was running the race. Now, while I'm glad he made it out there, and I hope he enjoyed it, the one thought: Wuss! Your wife is running a biggest race in Pittsburgh and your not! Whose the man here!? Ah, the days when Murphy would greet the runners and then get in the starting area with the rest of us.

There were a few new sponsors (Someone from KDKA got to speak). I hope they got a good show. I heard a rumor of the return of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and happy sponsors would be a good step in that direction.

It is fun seeing the city again. Running through Oakland. Along the Mon. Past Duquense with the rump band and cheerleaders. And flying down the ramp onto Boulevard of the Allies to the end. Oh, and the usual Eat 'n Park Smiley cookie.

And all three of us had our "Running for Joe" shirts. Had to wear something, right?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Directed by Clint Eastwood

This is the kind of film that only an American could make. A film of war, from the point of view of the enemy. It is of Japanese forces who were assigned the task of defending Iwo Jima against the oncoming Americans during World War II. And, in stark contrast to any other war movie, it portrays the imperial Japanese forces as human. With fears, wondering about the what is to come, and wondering about what the enemy is like. Iwo Jima was known as a place where the Japanese were particularly crafty, forsaking some of the stark militarism and bravado for a well prepared defense. The industrial war that the United States had developed to such effectiveness in air and naval bombardment turned out to be ineffective, and the Marines involved won the island at high cost, against an adversary that forced them to pay dearly for the island.

One of the chief lessons that I took care to emphasize in Afghanistan was the craftiness of our opposition. When I worked with newly arriving sergeants I made a point of reminding them of this, and giving examples. One thing that "Letters" does well in the first half is show the dilemma that opposing leaders have when fighting the United States, how do you combat an opponent who has what seems to be unlimited resources? And the intelligence that is needed to do this with honor.

The movie is based on the records of letters home from the Japanese commanding general, written in the days leading up to the American invasion. And they are very human, without the blind bravado that Hollywood usually casts upon the enemy (historical or fictional). They are a mix of fanatic, afraid, fearful of the future, honorable, and driven by shame, sometimes in sequence and sometimes many at once.

Some of the most touching parts are the scenes where the general or the main character are writting letters home. What they are doing that day, what they feel. And reading letters from their wives about the home front. It is very human, and very real. And I can completely relate, having spent the last 20 minutes reading all the letters I received while deployed.