November 2006

Nowadays, do Chinese children even know it? My generation grew up in this truly beautiful song. The melody and rhythm are actually quite sophisticated, yet it exudes naivety and happiness. And this slightest hint of ideology was good enough to get by in 1955:


It’s so subtle that it’s not propaganda at all.

Last Friday I was at a small party at Jay’s, and we karaoked after dinner. One of the guests has a very good voice, tender and articulate. I heard her sing pop songs before, but was dumbfounded when she sang the title. Mesmerized and hypnotized. Transfixed and transposed.

Yeah I was exaggerating a bit. But it was pretty close. She sang with an almost perfect teenager voice that is bright, pure, naive, innocent, and chaste. It immediately inundated my mind with the scene in 《祖国的花朵》(I’ve never seen any other part of it) in which the red-scarfed “young pioneers” sang the song while rowing in the North Pond, a tremendous feeling of “déjà vu all over again”.

And it’s not just me. Everyone loved it so much that we asked her to sing it again to wrap up the party. The second time wasn’t as shocking, but still extraordinary. Wow. The power of human voice.

In some sense, 1955 marks a turning point in New China. The “Three Large Movements” (土改、镇反、三反五反) after the birth of the nation were mostly over as well as the Korean War, but the movements on intellectuals are picking up stream from 批判武训 in 1951, 批判胡适俞平伯 in 1954, to 胡风反革命集团案 in 1955 (胡风 was fully rehabilitated in 1988). 1957, 1958, 1962(四清), 1966, …

幸福的生活 was like a kite soaring away in the East Wind. Fortunately the thread, albeit terribly thin at times, remains uncut, so we’re able to pull the kite back bit by bit. When we finally see it again, it doesn’t seem like what we remember or expect it to be. Did the kite change, or have we changed?

Accessible as for common non-techie people, not in its narrow sense as for the disabled.

A few recent blogs coincidentally touched on a similar subject:

  • Joel Spolsky on 15 shutdown options in Vista. His solution: one single “bye” button.
  • Raymond Chen on why Yahoo is the most searched-for term on Google: it’s easier and guaranteed to get the right URL–who knows what a URL is anyway?
  • Dyske Suematsu on the overrated freedom of choices. This is the guy who created the fun site that challenges you to distinguish people and things from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

I think I’m definitely a techie (and a control/organize freak) who likes choices, but I can certainly appreciate a simple user-friendly interface. However I hate the word “fool-proof”: it’s an insult to intelligent people. You should not dumb down the society! Unfortunately that seems to be happening everywhere.

Anyway I think all technology should provide a simple interface as well as an advanced one. I wouldn’t mind using regedit to turn on the advanced parts, because you want to make it “fool-proof” that no fool can turn them on accidentally.

That’s why I don’t quite like iTunes. I’ve been unwillingly bound to it due to some compulsive music purchases, but as I’ve importing all my CDs I find it very frustrating sometimes that it doesn’t provide advanced controls over many things it does under the hood, one of which is sort order. I find out empirically that after you click a column to sort, iTunes uses a certain order of the other columns to sort. For example, if I sort by album name, all the tracks in the same album are sorted first by track number, then track name. It makes sense for 99% cases, but there are times when I want to control that order as in Excel where I can specify 3 columns to sort by with a specific order.

So what’s my point? For technology product, there should be a choice to no choices or many of them. Let me do things in one simple way or my way. Now that’s some accessible technology for me.

Another solitary night, Lonely, but not lonesome–J taught me the difference years ago in a letter, one of the hundreds between us during those formative 10 years. Speaking of our letters, one of my life’s dreams is to someday make a beautiful book out of them. That would be a most detailed look at how we grew up together.

J’s in Atlanta with her cousin’s family for the Thanksgiving holiday. No, people, it’s not what it seems, again. I’m thus able to stay up as late as I need to finish this blog, though, so a momentary loneliness has its effect.

Back in the last decade of last century, I was busy collecting US/UK rock and pop songs, and I hadn’t started to appreciate jazz/swing music. And those were the days before the ubiquitous cheap pirate CD, so tape cassette was the only viable mass medium. And I never had much money to buy original tapes, even those “punched” ones.

cover I went to Tianjin University for a day, maybe in 1993 or 1994, with the Tsinghua student military band to play accompaniment for a trumpet or trombone–yeah I played a hell lot of accompaniment in Tsinghua and became quite sick of it. I found a tiny music store while roaming the campus, and saw a Sinatra at the Sands tape and bought it on a whim. I knew Sinatra was a big star, but I had never heard his songs nor of the Count Basie Orchestra–I was very ignorant about jazz. What attracted me was the cover: a fat black man at the piano and Sinatra in the strong the backlight seems like a stereotypical image of jazz, and I could never forget the image ever since.

Now I know that Sinatra was born in Hoboken and Basie in Red Bank, NJ, and in his monologue during the show Sinatra joked about a made-up name “The Secaucus Kacamamies” for his band at the beginning of his career, the album seems more intimate to me. But I never need the cover or the life stories to love the music: It’s quintessential Sinatra, Big Band, and swing–American art at its best. There’s never been anyone who can sing with such ease as Sinatra, yet his voice has a rare and deep sense of sincerity. Count Basie’s band is one of the last and greatest Big Bands. And Quincy Jones, arranger and conductor in the album, is of course one of the greatest black musician/producer ever. There’s no surprise that this album is reputedly Sinatra’s best selling one, but of course I didn’t know any of these when I bought it. I just liked the cover.

That’s not the first time that I got really lucky by judging music by its cover. Another time in Tsinghua, I went by the library and noticed a music sale in there, where I caught sight of the cover of an album called “Entre Dos Aguas”. paco.jpg I’d never really listened to flamenco music or heard of Paco de Lucía before, but I bought it for the cover and listened to it on the way to J’s university, and realized it’s a great investment. I gave it to J and one of her roommates, a Spanish major and music lover, saw it and told J that Lucía is the greatest flamenco guitarist ever, and I appeared really smart for getting it 🙂

miro.gif And that, my friend, isn’t the first time that I escaped my ignorance about Spanish culture in front of J’s Spanish-major roommates. At one time they served as translators at a Spanish trade show, and one girl brought back some nice posters to share with friends. I happened to be there (well I was there a LOT of times, at least once a week) and she asked me “Do you like Miró?” I had not the faintest idea who the hell Miró is, but to appear artsy and knowledgeable I said “sure, he’s pretty good”, and she seemed fooled (perhaps) and gave J a nice poster by Miró promoting tourism in Spain, which J put on her door at home for many years, and could may as well have seeded our great trip to Spain.

End of digression. The Paco de Lucía album is available at Amazon but the cover looks very dull to give me an excuse for not buying the CD. Instead I bought a nice MAudio USB audio interface, recorded the cassette, denoised and made tracks out of it. Sinatra at the Sands was an easy get from the library, and it’s one of the few CDs that still have its liner notes in the case. Now that the two of my best-buy cassette albums have both ended up in iTunes, ready to be played for a special occasion.

Or, to paraphrase Sideways,

The day you play music like Sinatra at the Sands and Entre Dos Aguas, that’s the special occasion.

Given our closest friend Cindy’s 8.5-month pregnancy, there’s not much for which she can go outside except the cinema. And there’s not many movies she can take. Also given our recent tendency to see 2nd-rate movie set in Europe as semi tourism documentary (Under Tuscan Sun, Casanova, Da Vinci Code), A Good Year is but the only choice for this weekend.

Turns out it’s almost as I expected: banal story, no-acting (doesn’t/can’t) Russell Crowe, good references to wine, but not enough Provence. The title is pretty pointless beyond the association to vintage. The market manipulation that earned Russell Crowe 77 million pounds is too childish. The belle of the town is too easy to get. Don’t waste your time unless you unconditionally love Russell Crowe.

Well, since you’ve already wasted some time reading this, why not a few more minutes, since most other actors/actresses are worth mentioning:

  • Freddie Highmore: I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year with my parents, in which Johnny Depp is way too wacky, so the boy saved the movie. Another fine young Englishman besides the gang of Harry Potter. And doesn’t he look like Haley Joel Osment? I guess it’s McCaulay Culkin who started this boy star look.
  • Albert Finney: I had only watched a couple of movies by this veteran before: Erin Brockovich and Big Fish. According to IMDB, he played the judge in the history-marking 1990 The Wall Live in Berlin, which I watched back in China and of course don’t remember anything except the wall breaking down at the end. He’s quite perfect for the role of mumbling adagial uncle, a bit like his role in Big Fish. Another fine old Englishman besides Michael Cane.
  • Tom Hollander: he looked awfully familiar, and we later found out that he’s the dim-witted Mr. Collins in the latest Pride and Prejudice, which J likes a lot. He seems too perfect to be type-casted…
  • Marion Cotillard: Hollywood is pretty good at sticking to a few proven foreign actresses. It seems like there are only 3 French women in the world: Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou, and this gal. She probably got famous as the cute/hot girlfriend from the most hilarious Taxi series (the American remake is so lame), and then we saw her in Big Fish (again) and A Very Long Engagement–oh sorry, that’s a French movie. She’s better playing cute, but she looks great in this movie–what did Russell Crowe do that deserves her?!
  • Abbie Cornish: Maybe the next beauty from Australia, ironically she plays a dumb American blonde, who supposedly knows a lot about wine because she grew up in Napa Valley. She really ought to watch Sideways carefully and learn from Virginia Madsen–now that’s a woman who knows wine!

(I wrote this a few years ago as a page on our homepage. Not sure when I’ll have time to resurrect the now defunct site, I’ll first give this piece a second life.)

I joined the Krannert Center Student Association just a few days after I arrived in America, and ushered about a score of shows during the 1997-1998 and 1998-1999 seasons. I made quite some friends, frequented all the halls of the great Krannert Center, and most importantly, experienced many spectacular shows — absolutely free! Once every few weeks, I would go to that little secret room beside the Foellinger Great Hall, put on a jacket, put on a badge, put on a smile and started saying “Good evening”. When the lights are dimmed, I sit down and enjoy the ultimate luxury in a busy graduate student’s life — live performing arts.

An old musicology professor once told me (actually he told my mother, who then told me) that he would rather go see a third-class orchestra live than listening to a world-class performance recording. It’s a bit over-dramatizing, but it’s true in the sense that there’s nowhere else you can find the magical interaction in live performances. Though I couldn’t help falling asleep for a few periods of time during most of the shows, I found many memorable moments while I was awake.

The ushering department of KCSA is no doubt the most popular one in the association. In order to assign shows fairly, we used a cumulative scoring system in which the more shows you usher, the more scores you accrue, the more priviledge you have toward selecting shows you want to usher. During my first semester, I had little capital to choose, but fortunately most of the shows I was assigned to were pretty good. Starting from the second semester, I could easily get what I wanted to see. It’s a huge pity that I became too busy from the third year and didn’t usher any shows, wasting my hard-earned senior usher status.


Here are some quick notes for all the shows I ushered, with some important names bolded (I’ve kept all the program notes):

  1. Go West Young Dad, University of Illinois Varsity Men’s Glee Club, Dad’s Day Annual Concert, 09/20/1997
    The very first show I ushered, it was a perfect beginning. I always love chorus, and the hilarious The Other Guys (consists of eight exceptional singers from the Men’s Glee Club) became my instant favorite. The next year I watched the same show with J. They’re the best!
  2. Christopher Parkening, guitar with Jubilant Sykes, baritone, 10/03/1997
    Classical guitar and baritone, a combination I’d never imagined, worked as magic.
  3. Images of Sound, Champaign-Urbana Symphony, 10/04/1997
    Champana’s local orchestra born out of the cornfield, it’s no counterpart to C.S.O. but it’s definitely worthy of hometown proud.
  4. The New England Ragtime Ensemble, 10/24/1997
    I thought Ragtime only exists in history records by now, but the show made it alive much more than Michael Jackson.
  5. Faculty Recital, Suren Bagratuni, cello and Edward Rath, piano, 10/29/1997
  6. Illini Symphony, 12/11/1997
  7. Juilliard String Quartet, 01/24/1998
    It’s one of the world’s best quartets, but the music is still a bit too serious for me 🙂
  8. Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, 01/30/1998
    Afro-Carribean jazz
  9. Georgian State Dance Company, 03/12/1998
    It’s Georgia the former Soviet Union state, NOT the state GA!
  10. Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group, 04/03/1998
  11. Annual Mom’s Day Concert, UI Black Chorus, 04/25/1998
  12. Marsalis/Stravinsky, 04/26/1998
    Wynton Marsalis meets Igor Stravinsky–crossover doesn’t get bigger than this. Marsalis played Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” in the first half, and then his own “A Fiddler’s Tale” in the second. The latter was composed “as a companion piece” of the previous, both with a Faustonian storyline of man (in Wynton’s piece, woman) trading soul with Satan. I need more time to listen to both pieces to really appreciate them, since they’re not as accessible as the Kennedy/Hendrix project later.
  13. Dee Dee Bridgewater: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, 09/23/1998
    Claimed as the heir to the “First Lady of Jazz”, Dee Dee is a U of I alumni (she dropped out, though :). It was the first time I listened to scat and it was mind-blowing. Later when I listen to the real Ella, I don’t think she’s even half as vibrant as Dee Dee.
  14. Nigel Kennedy, violin and the Kennedy Collective, 11/05/1998
    Definitely the most intriguing show I’ve ever seen. Please read my notes here.
  15. The King’s Singers, 11/14/1998
    Another great show. Please read my notes here.
  16. Chick Corea and Origin, 01/23/1999
  17. Monsters of Grace, A Digital Opera in Three Dimensions, by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, 03/02/1999
    The last show I ushered, unfortunately it turned out to be a huge dissapointment. Philip Glass is regarded as a modern master (composer of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun), but his music sounded like nothing but tedious, repetitive, and cheap synth. Computer graphics is supposedly the highlight of the piece, but all I saw was raw materials for CG101, to say the best. Stop wasting money!

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