October 2006

Last Friday night at NJPAC, it’s probably the most intriguing orchestral performance I’ve been to, one of the few times during which I didn’t take a nap. And I’m glad that J likes it as well.

Learning from the program note (which was taken verbatim from the orchestra’s website), the more than 200-year-old Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre has been a staple of the great Russian school from Glinka to Shostakovich. It also saw all the major faces from Berlioz to Schoenberg. Valery Gergiev, now 53, has been at its helm since 1988 and reclaiming its fame world wide.

I have a 2-CD set of Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra, and Friday’s pianist Alexander Toradze playing all 5 concertos of Prokofiev, which seems to be a definite recording. It sounded too “modern” to my classically inclined ears, so I don’t care much about it and haven’t listened to it often. But now I feel they’re probably more accessible than Shostakovich’s 8, so I should pay some more attention to them.

Some peculiar things that I noticed, before I talk about the music:

  • Gergiev didn’t use a podium. He wasn’t overly animated like Bernstein, so it doesn’t seem like a safety concern.
  • The location of the viola section and the cello section are swapped, with the violas sitting on the front right rows. From a picture in the program note, it’s not their normal position. The viola doesn’t seem to play too pronounced a role in either piece, so I’m not sure why the unusual arrangement.
  • The vast majority of musicians look like Russians, with only one female violinist with a slight East Asian look, and a male trumpeter with a definite Mid Asian/Mongolian look. These days it’s pretty hard not to see an abundance of Asian faces in a western orchestra, so I guess the Russian tradition is still too cold (literally and figuratively) to break.
  • The Prudential Hall stage is covered by grey wood flanks instead of the usual natural brown wood floor in dedicated concert halls, probably due to frequent dance performances there. It looks pretty ugly for an orchestra, and for some reason Toradze made a lot of noise knocking the floor when pedaling, which was a bit distracting.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is undoubtedly one of the biggest crowd pleaser in classical repertoire. I first heard its intro on a 9″ black-n-white TV as the background music for a surfing clip–must be early 80’s, and what an eye and ear opener it was! The clip was shown an awful lot of times due to either popular demand or the sheer lack of programming 🙂

The most distinctive thing in the performance is the slowness of the first movement. I have a CD by Argerich, Kondrashin, and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which I like very much–the combination of Rachmaninoff 3 and Tchai 1 is like winning the lottery after your startup just went IPO. So a Tchai 1 with trademark Argerich swagger and speed is deeply ingrained in my head, and I was quite shocked by the moderation and tenderness in Gergiev and Toradze. It’s a bit dragging at times, but mostly it’s surprisingly lyrical. Toradze didn’t seem to have warmed up well, though, playing some fast passages in the 1st movement in a murky and blurry way, but when he got to 2nd and 3rd his fingers started to catch fire.

It’s really some extraordinary feeling when the whole orchestra burst into the most magnificent parade at the finale: 4 5 4 | 4 – 2b3 | 24 1 2 | (lower octave) b7 5b7 4… Live music is magical, in whose swelling and scorching and scintillating waves and overtones can one be completely submerged and subsumed and sublimed.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 seems to be at the other extreme of a dichotomy, compared with Tchaikovsky 1. The only connection seems to be the composers’ common homeland. Where Tchai 1 is pleasant and melodic and accessible, Sho 8 is everything but. Given the context of the composition, the Soviet rhetoric against it is ridiculous, yet not surprising at all: the triumphant No. 7 was composed in 1941 (completed on 12/27) at the near victory of the Germans, and now in the summer of 1943 after the pivotal turn at Stalingrad, No. 8 came out as tragic as can be, whose side are you on?! It’s not unappropriate, though, that the Soviet later named it “Stalingrad”, suggesting that it commemorates the sacrifices in the bloodist battle in human history.

I’d never listened to any of Shostakovich’s symphonies before. Got a CD (Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, 1960 UK premiere) from the library just one day before the performance, and when I played it at home while we had dinner it was totally unbearable. No it’s not for what some Amazon reviewers called “legendary coughing” in the live recording–I simply couldn’t hear it because I had to turn the volume way down to try not to be bothered by the brutal dissonance. I thought it’d be excruciating to sit through more than an hour of maddening fanfare and shrieking violin, which would be particularly unfit for J.

Then on Friday during work I listened with headphones, and found it a bit more acceptable with some nice passages. They’re still not pleasant in the classical sense, but any hint of tonality and melody after a disarray of seemingly random phrases and rhythm is like finding water in the Sahara. In general that’s how I feel about modern music, and sometimes jazz, that some short moments of harmony and the resolution/transition towards them is good enough to make me enjoy the whole piece.

Come the live performance, it’s no doubt more grotesque and gripping and desolate than the recording, but strangely enough I found it quite enjoyable at times. The simmering and shimmering glimpse of hope in C major at the very end was particularly sweet and moving, after all the ear-screeching, heart-wrenching, soul-crunching bombardment of extreme discord and motor rhythm, regardless if those were meant for the German tanks or the Soviet regime. Yet the ending is nowhere near a flag-waving, crowd-cheering, street-dancing celebration. It’s merely a suffocated survival on scorched ruins. The fragility and brevity of hope makes Shostakovich a prophet for the subsequent half-century of more suffering inflicted upon the Russian people, and the ensuing chaos from the brutal capitalism shock therapy and ironhands that murder truth-seeking journalists.

Another thing that made us enjoyed the performance is that there’re many solo (or with slight accompaniment) passages by almost every instrument, especially in the wind section, so it’s interesting to look for the soloist for a visual match with the sound. I should watch out for a concert with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

I was astonished to find out that Yahoo Mail doesn’t use UTF-8. There’s no explicit option to set the encoding when I write an email, and the encoding seems to be set according to the My Account – Member Information – Preferred Content. The name “Preferred Content” is particularly confusing, when it’s nothing but a setting for region and language. I tried a few different settings, and the result is pretty strange:

  • US English (and probably all other non Chinese locale): encoding is Japanese (EUC-JP). This is really baffling, and it could be interpreted in bad ways.
  • Chinese (Mainland): encoding is Chinese Simplified (GB18030). This is ok, but the Chinese interface looks kind of weird, and it may actually be served by servers in China, so the performance flutters.
  • Chinese (North America and others): encoding is Chinese Traditional Hong Kong (Big5-HKCSC). It seems reasonable since more “outsea Chinese” are from Hong Kong than from Taiwan.

None of the encodings show up alright in my Outlook 2003. Go figure.

In the old non-Ajax Yahoo Mail, I think it uses the browser’s encoding setting. And gmail has an option to always use UTF-8. I can’t believe Yahoo can’t do this simplest thing right in 2006. Short it!

We went to Princeton a few weeks ago to visit my Tsinghua classmate and two ex-colleagues. After lunch my classmate took us to Princeton University Art Museum. It’s free and small, but has a surprisingly comprehensive collection spanning almost all chronological periods and geological areas, very good for a brief art history tour. There’s no well known masterpiece, though.

Its Chinese collection takes up almost half of the lower level for antiques with lots of good stuff across the ages. Two contemporary pieces are most memorable, one is an imitation on Shi Tao’s painting in Van Gogh style by 张宏图. I found his homepage online, and there’re a few more paintings like that. The other is a classical water-ink painting using slightly deformed Chinese characters to “paint” their corresponding objects, such as using many 枝 to compose branches, 石 as stones by the road, etc. It’s really a nice way to use the inherent artistic shape and flow of Chinese characters.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been shunning away from 9/11 materials for obvious reasons. I heard about this movie before, and my dad mentioned the Sean Penn segment in a talk, so I thought I should watch it. Recorded it from Sundance a while ago and got to watch it at last.

The 11 segments, each one is 11-minute 9-second, are uneven, but I’m glad that most don’t show 9/11 footage directly, so it’s a bit easier for me to watch. In general I think it’s a great and profound effort. I would probably never want to see those Hollywood movies about 9/11, which would probably only make people cry and/or cringe. What we need is sincere and thoughtful reflections on history and humanity like this movie. 9/11 is but just one atrocity out of the countless that have been afflicted upon us by ourselves. Its aftermath only makes it sadder, not more terrible.

  1. Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran
    The way that the Afghan refugee kids talk seems a bit fabricated–maybe they didn’t use those words in such a way as shown in the subtitle, which is too coherent and thoughtful for them. The young Iranian teacher is also a bit too considerate: she thinks US will bomb them, even with atomic bomb, yet she forces the children to lament for WTC. Of course I wish people are considerate and tolerant like her, but it just doesn’t seem quite possible now.
  2. Claude Lelouch, France
    A bit predictable and stale story, and one thing kind of weird and unnatural is that subtitle goes on even when there’s no sign/text/sound going on, like we’re reading the script while watching a pantomime, instead of figuring out what’s going on from the mime itself.
  3. Youssef Chahine, Egypt
    Very contrived, but it touches the fundamental problems and questions in the world of conflicts today, which make me really pessimistic at times: people remember history only when they want to, while not learning about humanity and tolerance from all the bloody history lessons at all.
  4. Danis Tanovic, Bosnia
    Director of No Man’s Land. The segment took place in the town of Srebenica, where Serbs massacred 8,000 Muslim men on July 11, 1995.
  5. Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso
    The lightest segment. Again the boys didn’t act very natural, but it’s fun to see how they gather up their toy weapons (spears and water gun) to catch the “Bin Laden”.
  6. Ken Loach, UK
    General Pinochet led a coup that overthrew and killed Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, also a Tuesday. Allende won the election only by a very slight margin (top 3 candidates: 36.2, 34.9, 27.8), and his socialist policies are arguable, but the Pinochet regime turned out as one of the more ruthless and totalitarian ones of the last century. Remember Sting’s elegant elegy “They Dance Alone” in my favorite album of his, “…Nothing like the Sun”:

    Hey Mr. Pinochet
    You’ve sown a bitter crop
    It’s foreign money that supports you
    One day the money’s going to stop
    No wages for your torturers
    No budget for your guns
    Can you think of your own mother
    Dancin’ with her invisible son

  7. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico
    The only direct and brutal account of WTC itself. I don’t like it partly because the overlapping voices is pretty cliche. At the end it shows a line “Is God’s light guiding us or blinding us?” And all I want to say is that “God’s light” is the problem in the first place.
  8. Amos Gitai, Israel
    The suicide car bombing in Jerusalem looks darn real.
  9. Mira Nair, India
    It has the most complete storyline, but it’s a bit predictable so not as moving as some others.
  10. Sean Penn
    This is the most delicate and interesting segment. There can be many different interpretation. I’m very curious why Sean Penn was chosen out of hordes of American directors, but what a great piece he turned in.

    I don’t think realistically there’s a residential window blocked by WTC. There’s hardly any residential building around WTC, let alone a window on the north-west side (judging from the direction of sunlight when the towers collapsed) of WTC that was constantly blocked. And the flower nirvana is more unrealistic–but the whole segment is about unreal reality, or is it a real dream?

  11. Shohei Imamura (今村昌平)
    I’ve never seen any of his movies (shame on me), but from what I read about them this segment is quite consistent. It has nothing to do with 9/11, but of course the last sentence “There is no Holy War” transcends all ages.

UPDATE: My Dad reminded me that Ken Loach won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his first major award. He was nominated many times before.

This week’s Cringely column gave a fun anecdotal about Sun’s origin. According to the then Stanford University Network czar, Andy Bechtolsheim built a cheap Unix box for Stanford, and CIA wanted it, but Andy couldn’t find any company willing to manufacture the box, and so it went.

I read about the Fab 4 reunite a while ago. It seems like a fabulous combination indeed: a software guru, a hardware guru, a biz guy, and an engineer-MBA-VC (later). Two Americans, one Indian, one German.

Ahhh, that time of the year: 72°, gentle breeze, sky as a huge monochrome canvas hanging in MoMA. Even Beijing gets a few days of sheer blue sky in autumn.

It’d be a perfect chance to take a stroll in Central Park, but we left for the city already past noon, and there’re probably already a few hundred-K New Yorker basking and another few hundred-K tourists balking in the park. So we chose to stay mostly inside of museums, stores, and our car.

Our first stop is Ecotopia at International Center of Photography. We went there a couple of years ago when my uncle invited us to an exhibition on Chinese photography. It’s a pretty small gallery, and the exhibition isn’t great, so the $12 admission seems not very well spent.

Next two stops are furniture stores. We want to get a nice office chair to make J more comfortable when J works from home. I looked up Herman Miller’s retailer directory and picked a couple posh stores. First one is Terence Conran at the bottom of Queensborough Bridge. I first heard of it some years ago as the first store in US to carry the now ubiquitous Dyson vacuum cleaners. It’s nice and cool European fine living, but we didn’t find any good office chair. One thing we noticed is an ultra-hip, super-expensive stroller called Bugaboo Frog–lo and behold–3 out of 4 strollers we later saw on upper east side streets have Bugaboo logo! Then we went to a Design Within Reach store. It just opened an outlet store in Secaucus and we bought our bar stools there. It has several Aeron chairs and we liked it. Joel Spolsky can’t be wrong.

Then we went to the Whitney Museum of American Art for the first time. We had the prejudice that American art is somewhat inferior to European, and it turned out not to be totally unfounded. If it were not for the special exhibition “Picasso and American Art” and free admission from J’s corporate badge, it would’ve been a total disappointment. I guess we’re brainwashed by the concepts and aesthetics of classical European “high art”, but we do like certain “modern” stuff from Picasso, Miro, Chagall, etc. However the special exhibition shows the enormous influence and shadow cast by Picasso, which is the intent of the exhibition in the first place. We do like Calder’s sculptures, but graphical arts from the Pollocks, Warhols, and de Koonings (though he’s born in Rotterdam) look either too clueless or too commercial. I watched the first half of a Warhol documentary on PBS a while ago, and gave up on the second half (for Warhol, not the documentary itself). It mentioned that Warhol made a claim at some point that he made more pieces everyday than Picasso. How preposterous.

Our last stop is the Neue Gallery. Because it’s the last day of the Klimt exhibition, there’s even a short line at the door. It would’ve been a total rip-off were it not free admission from J’s corporate badge again. The “museum” is tiny: a 3-story corner townhouse with exhibition space only on 2nd and 3rd floor, and the 3rd floor was closed for renovation. We saw the Klimt paintings in Vienna’s Belvedere before they were returned to the Bloch-Bauer family, and Estee Lauder’s son bought one for a record $135 million for the Neue Gallery, his pet project. The NYTimes said the gallery is more known for the Austrian restaurant on its first floor. Well, we didn’t care for Austrian food at all, so it’s no surprise that we care even less for the gallery.

So it doesn’t seem like a worthwhile trip, but we did enjoy the experience. Where else could we find chic stores to browse and brash museums to bash under a perfect autumn sky?

Autumn in New York
Why does it seem so inviting
Autumn in New York
It spells the thrill of first-nighting

Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds
In canyons of steel
They’re making me feel – I’m home

It’s autumn in New York
That brings the promise of new love
Autumn in New York
Is often mingled with pain

Dreamers with empty hands
They sigh for exotic lands
It’s autumn in New York
It’s good to live it again

Autumn in New York
The gleaming rooftops at sundown
Oh, Autumn in New York
It lifts you up when you run down

Yes, jaded roués and gay divorcées
Who lunch at the Ritz
Will tell you that it’s divine

This autumn in New York
Transforms the slums into Mayfair
Oh, Autumn in New York
You’ll need no castles in Spain

Yes, Lovers that bless the dark
On the benches in Central Park
Greet autumn in New York
It’s good to live it again

Music and lyrics by Vernon Duke, 1934
As performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

The Saga of Athlon

I bought a PC a couple of months after I started working in NYC. I wanted to save money but didn’t want to bother buying parts from various websites for the absolute lowest prices–newegg wasn’t even around back then. So I went to a PC shop next to a Chinese grocery store and bought all the components there.

I actually had never assembled a PC all by myself before, though I’d seen it done and worked with all kinds of PC components in countless times during the last 10 years. So finally, I thought, here’s the glorious moment to create my own modern marvel! So I wasted no time in putting everything together, plug in, press power–viola! Viola! Vio…

Blank screen. No self-test. No HD spinning. No beep. Not even smoke or spark.

I took the assembled box back to the store on the next day, all riled up. They opened the case.

“Umm–where are the standoffs on which the mainboard is supposed to sit?”

Standoff? What standoff? I ain’t never heard of no stinking standoff!

Wait a second… I did notice that the IO connectors were a bit lower than the openings on the back of the case…

That was one of the darkest moments of my life. The whole mainboard was shorted out via direct contact with the case. It was extremely fortunate that the only thing fried was the video card, which the store replaced at no cost–incredible customer service.

Braindead Dell

Fast forward a couple of years of happy PCing, the box suddenly died. I was braindead to order a new Dell immediately because of some stupid deal. The box doesn’t even have a drive bay for a second HD, so later I had to leave one loose in the 5′ drive bay. It’s not a total waste of money–I did use it to edit a friend’s wedding video because Adobe Premier has to use SSE2. And now it’s sitting behind the TV for media playback, which is actually pretty good use. But in general it’s a terrible investment.

After ordering the Dell, I took apart the old PC and found the power dead. Swap in a new one, plug in, press power–viola!

No, it did work.

Not for long.

I started to get strange hang and sudden reboot. I knew cursing M$ would be just another braindead act, so I poked around and found the box was very hot from CPU overheat, because the CPU fan was so clogged by dust that it could hardly spin. Got a new fan, and things got back to normal.

Not for long.

Big Bad Conroe

In the past few months the box was getting hot again, even after I cleaned the CPU fan. I began to consider upgrade, so I didn’t want to get a new fan and had to leave the box open when it’s on. It’s loud and ugly.

As if I really need a reason to convince myself for upgrade, Intel reclaimed PC processor performance crown by Core 2 Duo. For some benchmarks even the bottom Core 2 Duo outperforms the best Athlon 64. And another big incentive is to get something quiet. And newegg’s revenue is now only 1/6 of Amazon’s.

I basically stole the whole configuration from Puget Systems (reviewed by silentpcreview.com). The total price from newegg was 1/3 less. Sorry Puget!

This time the installation was also quite smooth. I even heeded newegg reviewers’ literally bloody warnings and put on a glove when dealing with the massive and supersharp cooling blades on the Zalman headsink. Plug in, press power–viola! Viola! Vio…

Everything started but then stopped immediatedly. I tried several times, but the machine was like a miniature Sisyphus. If it weren’t 2 o’clock in the morning I would’ve cried out really, really loud.

No, I’m not that stupid–this time the case comes with standoffs.

Well, I’m a little bit stupid. I didn’t read the mainboard’s manual careful enough and missed a 12V EATX power cable. There’s no such thing 5 years ago, you know…

I installed Vista RC1 first. Aeron looks really nice and slick, but it devours more than half of the 1GB memory, and most programs I tried can’t even be installed, like mainboard and graphics card utilities, and Nero Express. So I reverted to XP Pro 64-bit, which leaves a nice 800MB memory to me.

Here’s a comparison table for my 3 PCs.

UPDATE: I had to reinstall regular XP because all my peripherals–all Canon imaging devices, not coincidentally–do not have 64-bit driver. WTF?!

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