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.