Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chopin et Moi (Chopin i Ja)

Most of the time, in the grand scheme of things, musicians are not wholly too important.  Music is nice, but sometimes other things take precedence.  There are exceptions, however.  One of them is Fryderyk Chopin (also known by the French version of his name, Frederic Chopin).

While there have been several important musicians, no one musician has possessed such importance to a large number of people in his own day and now.  He represented a people who existed in all practical terms yet were invisible when looking at a map.  The music he wrote spoke to the sense of being Polish when there was no Poland to speak of.

Poland, represent.

It is this importance that Poland wishes to emphasize this year, what Poland has declared to be "The Year of Chopin."  This coming week will mark the celebration of what would be his 200th birthday (debates about his birthday being either 22 Feb 1810 or 1 Mar 1810 provide an convenient excuse for a week long celebration).  Places the world over will be celebrating his birthday, ranging from France (where he spent much of his adult life in exile) and even space (where Endeavor commander George Zimka will represent his Polish heritage by blasting Chopin's music into space).

Having listened to and played his music, I can fully understand why his appeal has spread to people outside of Poland.  There is a distinct voice in his music, something that is hard to discern from other artists prior to his time.  There isn't the rigidity that one finds in a lot of the German and German-influenced music of the time.  Instead, a flow that allows for the voice of Chopin to breathe through the notes allows it to seem much more personal.

This personal touch within his music, however, makes it very difficult to try to catch the essence of Chopin's music.  Part of the trouble is that the use of rubato, a sort of "relaxing" of the tempo, is mishandled by a lot of students.  I personally went buck wild with it when I was younger as a form of rebellion against the oppressive forces of the metronome, a mistake many young pianists make.  My piano teacher and other more experienced musicians advocate for a little more restraint and finesse instead of simply doing what you want because you can.

It is these complexities and more that make Chopin's music so challenging and so intriguing at the same time.  His music is sometimes clouded by fallacies that obscure whatever true meaning he was trying to convey with each note and phrase.  Hopefully by understanding the man and his brief life we can be able to carry on his musical legacy with a degree of accuracy.

Chopin's music gave a voice to a nation for 200 years, a nation which lived under the thumb of others for much of those 200 years.  Few classical musicians have made such a massive impact with their music during their day and after.

Also he left a legacy of really nice vodka.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's a Freaking Secret

There are some things out there in this free society that is kept hidden and secret.  Trade secrets are some of those things.  It's like your friend's grandmother's secret recipe for homemade spaghetti sauce (damn it, I want that recipe) except that it makes money and is probably guarded with more than a index card filing box and an elderly woman with a wooden spoon and the ability to beat you senseless with it.

Protector of trade secrets.  Woman is lethal with a wooden spoon.

Now in addition to things like the secret formula to making Coca-cola to medicines to whatever addictive substance is in those delicious rice cakes at the local Korean market, you can add...race.  Yes, race.

Five Silicon Valley companies -- Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle, and Applied Materials (they're a chip manufacturer) -- won their battle to not disclose the racial makeup of their employees as a "trade secret."  (Hewlett Packard tried and lost.)  Um...what?

The colors are supposed to be secret.

Yes, apparently the racial composition of the employee body somehow augments their ability to do tech stuff. Really?  Have they discovered some sort of Colonel Sanders like recipe of the exact blend of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Whites, Hispanics, and Indian Americans (for spice) that is the optimal ratio for developing things like the iPad and database application development tools?  Wouldn't bet on it.  I highly doubt that their trade secret is employing all white people for management or having Asian-American and Indian programmers--wait...

The very obvious assumption one can make here is that there is something going on here that probably won't look good.  My suspicion is that there are few if any minorities in positions of power, something which probably wouldn't shock me.  Irritate me, perhaps.  But shock me, no.

Usually, from what I can surmise about many large tech firms, is that while there are many brilliant programmers and tech grunts of varying ranks and abilities who are of Asian heritage/descent.  But their actual managers in charge of these non-commissioned folks are usually white.  This has been a common problem for Asian-Americans, as they're viewed as "shunning power" or some horse-manure laden argument like that.  And the presence of the traditionally marginalized racial groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, can be described as minimal on a good day.

Unless they've all developed their own "secret" race of people...
They left their amazing coding and personnel management skills out of the theatrical version.  It'll be on the DVD.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Awkward Mirror

Due to the large quantity of free time I've had over the last week, I've had an abnormally large amount of time available to sit around and not do much (Except for my readings, for all you professors reading this.  Don't you have papers to grade and scholarship to further?).  As such, I've had time to do a bit of reading for fun and also watch movies.  Last night, I watched the film Adam, one that I've been hankering to see for quite some time.

Adam is the story of Adam Raki (played by Hugh Dancy), a 29 year old man living with Asperger's syndrome.  He is employed as an electrical engineer at a toy company and is an amateur astronomer.  More or less, he's what I'd probably be with actual useful talents and contributions to the greater world of science.  Like many people with Asperger's syndrome, he leads a fairly methodical and organized life.  He eats the same thing every day, and his closet would be something out of a cartoon if it wasn't right there in front of you.

This being a romantic comedy, another party gets involved in this man's life.  In this case, it's Rose Buchwald, an elementary school teacher and more or less the complete opposite of Adam.  As a part of her job, it's her duty to be an empathic person, while Adam is wrapped up in his own mind and thoughts most of the time.

I'll spare reading off the details as I'm not a professional movie reviewer, so I'll just direct you to the NY Times review of the film.

What I can offer of the film is what I personally felt for myself, not as some sort of critic with any sort of person, but as the lay person who empathizes with the main character.

Some out there (namely this fellow) have pegged me as having the same syndrome as Adam in the movie.  There exist dissenters out there as well, some of whom have worked with people who actually have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.  Whatever the case may be, I found myself empathizing with the character on a very strong level.  While I don't fully possess the exact same characteristics as he does (again, he actually has useful electrical engineering skills), I do understand the frustration he must feels when he can't empathize with people at all and get anything right when he is stumbling through his romance of Rose.  When Adam is let go of his job (whoops, spoiler, but unimportant), you see things through his point of view, and he's simply seeing through a muted tunnel.  That visualization is perhaps one of the best ways to explain it.

Now whether or not I actually have Asperger's is up for debate.  I might just be very socially awkward and a "normal," "functioning" "member" of society.    Nonetheless, it's one thing to have to try to wade through an occasional awkward moment in your life; it's quite another when it's nearly paralyzing and all you get out of it are what could be construed as panic attacks.  I couldn't help but root for Adam as he is assisted in his endeavor to form a human bond with Rose, probably one of the most difficult things for someone in his position to do.

I also couldn't help but appreciate the effort given by Rose to help Adam.  Trying to deal with someone like that who is simply clueless and firmly entrenched in their methodology of life must be incredibly frustrating.  For Christ's sakes, I find myself a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes and I know what I'm like already.  Imagine someone who hasn't had to deal with someone who's got the same quirks as me.  Welcome to a world of hurt there.  And kudos to anyone out there willing to persevere through that.  The world could use more people like that.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don't Ask and Don't Care

The issue of homosexuals in the military is a controversial issue. 1992 saw the institution of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy under the Clinton administration as a compromise regarding his desire to let homosexuals in the military. Like many compromises, it left no one happy.

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he stated that he will "work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." On Tuesday, ADM Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services committee regarding the matter and how he had issues with a policy that compelled servicemen and servicewomen to "lie about who they are to defend their fellow citizens." SecDef Robert Gates has also stated his support for the repeal of the policy.

It's about damn freaking time.

In a time when the United States is being stretched fairly thin the world over, it seems folly to reject openly gay candidates when other compromises (such as allowing gang members to join the ranks) are being made. Furthermore, there is no evidence that being homosexual hampers one's ability to defend their nation.

Just ask this guy.

Furthermore, two nations with armed forces which don't seem to be pushovers - Britain and Israel - don't seem to have any problems with imploding on themselves because they have openly gay members in their military. (Hell, Britain lets 'em march in gay pride parades in uniform.) Barring homosexuals from joining the military simply due to what is more or less some sort of institutionalized prejudice is silly. If that were the case, there'd be no black members or female members in the military either, and so far, they don't seem to have destroyed the military.