Saturday, April 26, 2008

Art in the City - Pittsburgh April 25, 2008

Friday night was the first Pittsburgh Cultural District Gallery Crawl of the summer.  And I had tickets for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for that night.  Ingredients that promised a fun evening.  

One of the fun things about the Gallery Crawl is the sheer variety of exhibits.  There are the usual film projects, photo projects of various kinds.  A few musical acts (I think if anyone can sit through a steel drum performance without smiling they should be checked for a pulse.)  But I really remember the cross media pieces.  At Trombino Piano they had sculptures up, made of piano parts! 

Piano parts

Hammers in colors

Over at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute they had some food.  I was so happy that they gave the chili a bit of kick to it, like chili should have.  And they had a centerpiece that our local chef's in training do for fun.

All this followed by a concert with the PSO.  And even here the variety continued.  From the strident brass of Hindemith's Concert Music, to Chee Yun's violin singing with the orchestra on Mozart's Concert No. 3, the sheer range and variety of the night was something to be enjoyed.

New spaces

Moving is a funny thing. First, there is the shock of packing all of your worldly possessions. And if you do it right, you end up with everything you own in boxes in one room before the movers (hired or friends) show up. And you get something that looks like this.

All my worldly goods

Maintenance staff trying to be helpful: "Let me reserve the elevator for you"
Me: "I don't need it, I'm on the first floor"
Mover: "Good!"

Movers after going through my apartment to "see what we are in for": "He's ready. You should give classes on packing to our customers"

Quote (Movers and maintenance staff watching another moving truck come by): "good thing we got here first" (to get the spot next to the door to the outside)

Loading the truck was fairly easy. We had to take apart a bed that looked like it would fall apart if we picked it up. And I had a lot of camping stuff in bags that they put into one very big box (which was now very heavy), but other then that, it was just move the whole thing in.

Then we got to the townhouse. Which goes three up + basement

Mover: These things are pretty, but the architects do not like movers.

So the moving in was hard, and we had to take a couple of breaks along the way. Especially after bringing furnature to the top floor

Mover: When you move out, leave the ___ there as a housewarming present

So now, I'm in a new (for me) house. And there is so much space around. I have a nice kitchen that two people can work in without bumping into each other (not that is a bad thing, especially if the other person is nice and soft to bump into :-) )

new kitchen

And lots of room for my Roomba, which used to be restricted to certain areas, to run around.

Roomba at work and play

And I'm sitting here, after a neighborhood run, eating breakfast and listening to the Roomba run around. This is nice.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Who Lost the Debate? Moderators, Many Say

If none of us ever read a book that was "dangerous," had a friend who was "different," or joined an organization that advocated "change," we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.- Edward Murrow, to his staff before his "See It Now" broadcast on Joe McCarthy, 9 March 1954

You wonder what kind of campaign will we have. The candidates have somewhat refrained from direct character attacks, but this seems replaced by widespread collateral damage, as the candidates are being called on to repudiate staff, friends, former colleagues, former acquaintances, people they may or may not have met crossing the street (ok, I'm getting a little facetious, but not by much). And even if the candidates can restrain themselves from attacks (John McCain for one does not seem to have forgotten the Bush campaign of 2000, where an underground campaign painted John McCain as a "Manchurian Candidate" (as a reference to his time as a POW) and his daughter as a half-black illegitimate child (his daughter is a Bengledeshi adoptee). All indications are McCain has no intention of having a George Bush style presidential campaign.

But it may not matter. Because for both parties, it is not just the candidates, but the party organizations that are around them. The Clinton campaign has alluded to this expectation, fed by the dependence of the McCain campaign on the GOP due to financial issues, and the attempts of the McCain campaign to get the backing of the conservative wing of the Republican party (which would presumably include them acting in support of McCain, in ways McCain would approve or not.)

A marine colleague of mine made the comment, after the way that John McCain and John Kerry's combat zone service was portrayed in the 2000 and 2004 elections by the George Bush campaigns, he did not know how valuable his own combat zone service was worth anymore. And the same people who brought that, are on the sidelines waiting for the general election to begin. If McCain cannot or does not restrain them, then both of the Democratic candidates for President will agree on this, that the sniping and character attacks that are seen know (and described by some as distractions), will be nothing compared to what the RNC will come up with.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ritas on the River, San Antonio TX

Server 1: Hi. C is your server, but she asked if I can get you started. Do you want anything to drink?

Me: Can you tell me about Shiner Bock?

Server 1: Umm, let me ask the bartender about it. . . . Hey, can you come up with words to describe Shiner Bock?

C comes bounding up: Oh, Shiner Bock is my favorite beer, I drink it all the time at home . . .

Server 1: Oh, and (bartender) says

C: Oh, he does not like Shiner Bock, but let me tell you . . .

Earlier that day

Take off. *rumble* *shake* Me to neighbor: That did not sound too good.

Later, a bit before landing: This is that pilot speaking . . . That vibration you may have noticed on take off, one of our landing gear tires blew out. . . We'll be landing in . . . Please take out your safety cards as we review procedures for emergency landing.

I ended up explaining to my neighbor just what does one tire blowing out mean (not much, as long as its neighbor and the landing gear are ok), what the procedure is (the pilot had explained this in detail, but most people did not catch it), and yes, this was more complicated than the normal landing, but not out there on the difficulty/dangerous rating compared to what these fine (young) pilots are trained for, but it would be a good idea to count how many seats are between you and the two nearest exits. It probably helped my neighbors' comfort level that as we approached, the pilot did indeed do a few of the things I had explained in detail.

And of course, lots of joking around on the ground afterwards.

Neighbor on bus from plane to terminal: I wonder why they did not just have all of us get our bags at the plane since we were waiting for the buses.
Me: They probably were trying to get us off the runway. People who run airports get nervous when people who don't belong are wandering on runways. Like these buses that are normally parking shuttles (noticing the helpful placards for people going to/from parking lots on the bus). That is why all these SUVs with flashing lights are playing sheepdog with the buses.
Neighbor: *chuckling* yep, keeping everyone in line.

Man on escalator after I caught a lady with a baby who fell while trying to hold baby and bags: This has been an exciting day, hasn't it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Silk Elephant: A taste of things to come

Silk Elephant
1712 Murray Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

We went to Silk Elephant for dinner Friday night, after a day of work and practice. Silk Elephant opened in 2006, by the owners of Bangkok Balcony up the street in Squirrel Hill. The owners, Norraset and Eileen have greeted me on many occasions, both in their restaurant and in various functions serving the asian community around town. (I don't remember how Norraset and I were first introduced) In keeping with our desire to use vendors that are as close (social, geographic or otherwise) as possible, we are asking them to cater appetizers for our wedding reception.

The concept of Silk Elephant is a Thai Tapas and wine bar. To state it in more proper foodie terms, Silk Elephant is a thai tasting menu restaurant. Lots of small dishes that are expected to be shared (as opposed to the large entrees that are normal restaurant center pieces). And while the word 'fusion' has been used to describe it, I would just call it Thai inspired and creative (fusion implies that another style of cuisine was fused into it, which is usually the case with other more properly labeled Thai fusion restaurants). I have the opinion (surprise!) that their is a difference between a cook and a chef, a chef is creative. (which is why I don't take part in discussions about 'authentic' food at a restaurant)

When we (three of us) arrived, we told the hostess of our reservation, and we were recognized by the manager (who had helped us pick our dishes for the reception). Of course we were greeted, and the purpose of the meal was understood. Earlier he had sent me an email to remind me of our selection for the reception, which we were going to try today.

-Siam Paragon
-Rack of Lamb
-Fresh Rolls
-Curry Puff - Taro
-Moon Goon Steamed Dumpling

Siam Paragon
Siam Paragon at Silk Elephant

Rack of Lamb
Rack of Lamb at Siam Paragon

Fresh Rolls
Fresh Rolls at Siam Paragon

All in all, a pleasant and enjoyable meal. Dishes well prepared, and a nice mix. And the conversation and company were wonderful. Norraset came by and we talked of my going to Afghanistan and return, and about family, and about living in Pittsburgh.

There are many things that make life interesting, and we've come to appreciate the fact that Pittsburgh is the type of place where you can go to a restaurant and have a human conversation with owners, even if you are not a regular (I can count on my fingers the number of times I've been to Silk Elephant, although I've come across Norraset on many occasions outside of his restaurant.) He is a prior awardee of Pittsburgh 40 under 40, we were eating with a Steinway artist (i.e. a very good pianist), and we were two young, recently arrived people, still in the early stages of making our way in the world. It is a good life.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture AKA Keeping Priorities Straight, even at the End

Hat tip to Tara Parker-Pope, who writes The Well blog at the New York Times. And Freakonomics blog for pointing to The Well about this.

Randy Pausch is a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, probably best known as one of the founders of the Entertainment Technology Center. The local wag is that is where you go to learn to make video games. CMU alumni know him as the one who started the class Building Virtual Worlds. He is also dying of pancreatic cancer.

Last September, Randy gave one last lecture. Watch it. (linked to YouTube below.) It is not about cancer, it is about achieving life dreams and lessons learned. But it is not really about that. It is about living life.

In contrast to the normal academic lecture, it is something that is paid attention to. And not just by students, by many around the world. A lecture on living life, with an audience of millions.

And as he says, it is not about cancer, and it is not about pity. He does not want any of that. And he does not even care about the audience of millions. He did this, so his kids can see him give a lecture. For them to learn lessons of life that he won't have the time to teach in person as they get older.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

General Patraeus goes to Washington, Round 2

General David Patraeus, commander Multinational Force - Iraq (MNF-I), and Ambassador Crocker are currently in Washington DC giving testimony to the U.S. Congress regarding the current state of the U.S. and Coalition occupation of Iraq. The purpose of this is to give someone without background some of the background behind the testimony. Actual analysis and especially implications on the current U.S. Presidential candidates belong elsewhere.

First, why is a senior General of the U.S. Army, and the commanding officer of the largest and most decisively engaged component of the U.S. military subject to questioning by a legislative committee(s). The U.S. has a strong tradition of civilian control of the military. In addition, the U.S. tradition is that the instruments of military power, are outside the political process. For many years, the U.S. military has emphasized as a point of pride, they were (are?) the only military in the world whose officer's swear their oath of service, not to a person or a group of people, but to a piece of paper (the U.S. Constitution). This is in marked contrast to the usual oath, which is to a head of state, a government body, or a political party. One of the ways that this plays out is both the executive and legislative branches can call on him based on their constitutional authority. And, the legislature can call on him without viewing him as an agent of the executive branch. And as all general officers are confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the Senate has some room to say that generals work for them. Not something that is used lightly, but in terms of providing testimony, the Senate can call on anyone they please.

Why Gen. Patraeus and not higher? The chain of command in the U.S. starts at the President, then the Secretary of Defense (a cabinet/ministerial level position). Then, the combatant commander (COCOM) (who is responsible for all military forces in the region) who then commands subordinates to implement policy. In the U.S., there is a parallel structure called the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who also report to the Secretary of Defense. The JCS are responsible for the training and equipping of forces. The COCOMs are responsible for how those forces are actually used. For U.S. forces in Iraq, as employed forces, their actions are under the perview of the COCOM (although their training back home is a JCS issue). In times of war, it is not unusual to appoint a theater commander (MacArthur, Ridgeway in Korea, Westmoreland, Abrams in Vietnam) responsible for all activities in theater, within the regional command. Patraeus is the regional commander for Iraq, within the larger umbrella of the U.S. Central Command.

Where did Patraeus come from? Regarding the current war in Iraq, Patraeus was a division commanding general during the initial invasion. Most accounts view him as very innovative during the initial combat operations, as well as in reestablishing civil affairs afterwards, something that was not viewed as typical. After return to the states, he was assigned to Iraq again in charge of training the Iraqi forces. He then returned to command the Fort Leavenworth and the Combined Arms College (a graduate level institution) at Leavenworth he and Marine General Mattis oversaw the writing of the new U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency doctrine. After this, Patraeus was selected to command MNF-I as the senior U.S. officer in the theater.

What is his relationship with the Bush administration? Well, pretty rocky over time. He has long been known as a counter-insurgency expert, and the Bush administration was very adament for a long time that the conflict in Iraq was not an insurgency. Some commentators thought that the assignment of Patraeus and others to the various military schools was essentially professional exile. (what kind of career does a military officer have as a college dean instead of commanding combat troops in a war). And with the Iraq war going very badly, the view of many commentators is that the Bush administration essentially cried for help, and brought Patraeus back to the war, even with his not very liked counterinsurgency doctrine. Because it probably would not do any worse. And Patraeus brought along a number of other officers who did a lot of thinking about counterinsurgency with him (and who had helped write the new counterinsurgency doctrinal manual). Somewhat of a return from exile.

Wait, I thought counterinsurgency and the 'surge' was viewed as the Bush great idea? Counterinsurgency (COIN) is still a very debated concept in the U.S. military, even among those who have recent experience in a war zone. One source of opposition are those who are concerned that the business of the army is to wage high intensity combat, the kind with tanks and artillery and mass formations. Not this COIN that is mostly done with small numbers in very close contact with civilians. Another group says that building up communities is not the military's job, so they should not learn how (the "we don't do nation building" crowd) and let the civilians do it. More cynical observers point to another source of opposition. Since COIN requires resources be put into training people rather then heavy equipment, cynics note that the normal military contractors don't get rich building tanks and planes in COIN, so they are opposed (along with their friends in uniform).

So, what is happening now in Washington? Gen Patraeus and Ambassador Crocker are back for a second round of testimony before congress. The first was in September 2007. Six months was considered to be a decent interval. As both of them are confirmed by the Senate, the Senate deals with them as their agents, (which is why Gen Patraeus had no need to discuss his testimony with the executive branch last September. The Ambassador is the President's personal representative overseas, so he probably does have some requirement to discuss with the President what he will say.)

The committees in question are the foreign service and the defense committees. This is where the real power in congress lies. The staff of these committees for both of the major parties are presumed to be experts in their fields, and are expected to prepare their members well regarding lines of questioning. But while they can give testimony regarding the current state of affairs in Iraq, as well as some discussion of options and what can be done with resources available (or made available), the actual current policy of Iraq is not really the topic of discussion. That comes when instead of listening to testimony, Congress is debating policy. And part of the purpose of this testimony is for the various sides to ask their questions and shape the policy debate to come. And to gather information and ammunition for that conflict to come.

Friday, April 04, 2008

PSO: a game of searching

My fiancee and I went Friday night for the PSO, with Emanuel Ax, for the second time this season. This time we came with four college music students, bringing them down to experience the Cultural district on a Friday night. Dinner was learning all about college life, and my fiancee quizzing the students, among other things asking if any of them looked up that night's program. None of us (including me) did.

The evening's concert featured a couple Debussy pieces, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin Concerto No. 2. Ax also played an Encore by Liszt. But it was the Jeux (poeme dance) by Debussy that caught my attention. Listening to it, the impression I had was of encounering a sweeping expanse, and a period of searching for something. Later on, my fiancee pointed out that the Jeux was in fact a game of tennis, and in the piece, the players find themselves looking for lost tennis balls, and later the pursuit of romance. It is not obvious to me that the game was tennis in the absence of the choreography of dance, but that is almost beside the point.

One of many opposing views in the understanding of classical music as art is the question of meaning, does the music require an underlying story or meaning, or can the music exist in and of itself. (I'm sure there are technical terms for the opposing sides) I have taken the view on this blog that the best of music has intended meaning that the artist seeks to transmit, and the audience can hear it (or not) and has the right to develop its own interpretation. But the fact that the artist intended a specific meaning is still important (my fiancee leans toward the other view. We fight gently.) And so in this piece, I, as an untrained listener with no knowledge of the piece its origins, or the composer (for all practical purposes) can interpret the piece in a way, has similarities (and some differences) with the original 'intended' meaning. And this is an example of music used to transmit meaning (although even this is more blunt than required).

Why does this matter to me? I was at a party a few weeks ago, hosted by a musician. As part of the party several musicians present played some pieces. It was the very meaning of chamber music, music played in a private chamber, and it was a wonderful evening, of performers and audience, enjoying each others company, and sharing music, but the listening and the playing. While talking with another of the non-musician guests, they gathered that I write this blog, and were impressed by the association. They later learned that I am one who has gone of to fields of war, and exclaimed how big the difference between the two worlds, the beauty and wonder of classical music in one of its purest settings, and the harshness of the reality of modern war. And my reply was that music (as all the arts) has as its purpose addressing the whole of what it means to be human. And that means both the ability to appreciate and create beauty and wonder and hope, as well as the ability to bear through hardship and horror. More stark reminders of this exist in plenty. I've written here of Vedran Smailović, the cellist who played in the streets of Sarajevo during this midst of seige. Many of this nation's newspapers have printed incredible letters from those who have gone to war, some after the writer has died in battle, whose mastery of language stands alongside the greatest poets and writers the english speaking world has known.

The difference can be jarring. I've gone from galas with tuxedo and evening gown, to stepping off a plane in a dusty field wearing boots within a space of weeks, and the reverse when I returned. But it really is not two different worlds, a world of art as escape and a world of harsh reality, it is one. And art (including classical music) is at its finest when it has something to say, both to recognize the reality of the harshness of the world and what man can create, as well as the hope and beauty of the world and what man can aspire to. And even something as light as the music of young men chasing a tennis ball on the court is an example of art transmitting meaning, and just like life, sometimes that meaning is lighthearted, sometimes weighty. But considerably more than only an escape (even if escape does have its place..

Thursday, April 03, 2008

White Night, book 9 of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

By this point, Harry Dresden, the protagonist, has more responsibility in the form of Molly, who is in the same position he was at the beginning of the series. In probation. The threats are bigger, and with the responsibility of training someone else in discipline, his own discipline is improved.

You see Harry growing through the series. His earlier self-destructive attitudes of always protecting others, even from knowledge of danger, is slowly going away. And he has learned how to ask and receive help, and he finds out many of the people he used to try to protect, are quite competent in their own ways.

The growing sense of trust and learning to depend on others shows considerable growth, which makes this book a delight to read, and watching him engage the dangers and obstacles along the way that much more interesting.