Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Understanding the anger: Trump and Brexit in a microcosm

Many were shocked at the election of Donald Trump tonight and at Brexit earlier. I'm not. The organisation I work for recently had its own mini revolt against the pundits' expectations and it's a microcosm of what's going on in the larger world.

A vote to accept an enterprise agreement that would have seen many working conditions moved out of the agreement in return for a tiny rise in salary was recently rejected my a seventy percent margin. Soon after the vote I had lunch with members of the corporate team, many who voted for the agreement and expressed disbelief at the result.

Our organisation is divided into scientific and engineering researchers and technicians and corporate management and support staff. The organisation is in a permanent state of flux, constantly restructuring itself. In the last decade the strong trend has been to remove support services from the front line and centralise them at a corporate level.

Support staff that previously had science degrees and worked directly with researchers have now been replaced with employees from the business and marketing world. Decisions are now driven by financial objectives or a desire to partner identifiable names.

Most scientists don't do science for the money, though they need it to survive. They do it for the intellectual passion, to discover something new, to understand or to solve problems, hopefully making the world a better place.

It's hard work training to be a scientist and its difficult to find employment in research, so working for an organisation like ours is very precious. Naturally the researchers and those who love working for a national icon want to keep their job protections.

For many of those in corporate life is very different. The fact that an organisation has long traditions and a reputation built upon solid work over almost a hundred years is meaningless. They are driven by money, power or the thrill of the deal. They could be working anywhere. And at the top level, there are always other opportunities. Many don't hang around long, so job protections are not a high priority for them.

There is strong sense, born by many staff surveys, that those at the top never listen to those at the bottom. Rather than consult staff about the organisations structure and future the management tend to rely on endless external consultants and friends from the business sphere. Or conditions are driven by business or government ideology without the presentation of logical reasoning for the decisions.

So when the staff feel so disempowered of course they are going to lash out. Hence the vote on conditions.

The same thing is happening on national scales. People in a huge range of jobs, not just manufacturing, but in services, farming, mining and others are suddenly being told that their skills, indeed their lives and in many cases their communities, are worthless, that in the name of investor profits that their jobs are going overseas (or being automated). Businesses that could once easily supply a nation are now only profitable if they can produce globally.

On one hand these workers are being told they are worthless and on the other they are being asked to exalt the needs of the corporate investors. Their profits, their lifestyles, their belief that economic rationalism must triumph over all else is supposedly unquestionable. The rich can influence policy, the poor are made to feel unwanted, unimportant. It's okay for the elite to demand that others work harder for less pay ("productivity") while they award themselves greater bonuses and pay less tax.

So what do you expect the ordinary person to do? Suck it up?

It's not new. The world has seen its fair share of revolutions throughout history. One can imagine the sense of satisfaction in a communist revolution when a peasant forcefully introduced the privileged elite to their world.

Fortunately there seems to be an aversion to armed revolution in modern Western civilisation, for they just produce more suffering and a different elite. But the anger remains. And anger isn't rational. It lashes out without thinking, without empathy.

Look at the way that racist sentiment is increasingly being expressed in many Western countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia. It's human nature to be suspicious of difference and it's up to our evolved minds to keep our behaviour in check, to understand what is right instead of right now.

Some people, conservatives, are mentally unable to handle change or that others might think differently to themselves. Their denial of reality can't be allowed to ruin the future for all.

We can't stop change and nor should we. But change must be handled with empathy and be inclusive. It must be rational and not driven by greed so that it only benefits a few.

Otherwise all we will have is anger and that is where we are now.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Back to the Future with orchestra

It was a late 80's summer's Sunday and we were at a Christmas party at our neighbour's place across the road. That meant a kilometre away in this rural Queensland locality. I wasn't really interested in talking to any of the adults and was sitting in our van listening to ABC Classic FM radio. My favourite show was on, an hour or so devoted to film music.

I'd recently seen Back to the Future on the television for the first time and enjoyed the main theme. So when the radio announced that the next piece would be from Back to the Future I was excited.

Then it played and I recall being a little disappointed at the lack of the main theme. But something strange happened as the only other then available orchestral piece from the soundtrack album played ("Back to the Future").

I felt energised, driven. I had a mission. I had to run. I ran away from the party. Down the gravel path and back up the other hill to home.

That's the power of Alan Silvestri's score.

So naturally I was excited that the Sydney Symphony was performing a live accompaniment to a screening of Back to the Future at the Sydney Opera House.

Nicholas Buc and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra did a fine job of performing the energetic score. Silvestri had to compose additional music for these live performances as his score doesn't begin until 20 minutes into the original screening. It also features a couple of pieces from the third movie during the return from the intermission and the end credits.

Unfortunately it was another case of the movie being rather too distracting from the orchestra. It's a great movie, though Alex was rather restless. Turns out he was quite sick, which rather detracted from the day. Still, B and I certainly enjoyed the eighties references, even if we don't have hoverboards and flying cars yet.

And that performance likely brings our orchestral concert attendance for 2016 to a close.

Unless there's an encore I don't know about yet.

Monday, September 19, 2016

6th Kyu

This was the first karate grading without Alex grading at the same time. Sensei decided that, as a kid, he needed another term, but I didn't.

Quite disappointed in myself making so many errors under pressure, getting myself tangled up with stuff I should be good at after all the practice.

Passed, but not satisfied. Wish Alex was here with me. He'll do better. Oh to be young again!

Aladdin the Musical

Last night we headed into the city to watch Aladdin the Musical at the Capitol Theatre. I have to say first up that I'm not a big fan of Disney cartoons and have never watched all of the movie upon which it is based (I think it unfair to reference the original tale). However, B has put up with enough orchestral concerts with me to make it only fair that I accompanied Alex and her to the show.

The sets were stunning, real works of art and technical accomplishment, and the costumes and choreography were superb (I joked that the pyrotechnics made it a bit like certain current Middle Eastern cities). We all agreed that some of the songs dragged on and the first half could have been shorter. Unlike the Lion King I couldn't take refuge in the music as Alan Menken's score was too showy for my liking. But visually it was amazing.

The US actors playing the Genie (Michael James Scott) and Jasmine (Arielle Jacobs) were perfect, while local Aljin Abella was fantastic as the evil sidekick Iago. Other cast members were good, though I found Ainsley Melham's Aladdin a bit too much typical Aussie Musical for my taste (that's a technical description).

Overall it was one of the more fun musicals that I have seen and well worth seeing for the sets and effects alone.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The road

A road has too many choices
A road can lead you astray
Too many branches
Too many chances
Are you sure you want to go that way?

Far safer to stay at home
Never to open that door
Hide from sight
Fear the light
Else you’ll always want for more.

A stone statue may last forever
The sands of time drifting away
Step into the world
Ignorance unfurled
And then you'll surely pay.

Do not ask the questions
The answers may not be yours
Self battered
Certainty shattered
Discard the beauty, see the flaws

Journeys are best untaken.
Stick to what you know
Better to be a fool
Than to break a rule
Who can tell how far you’ll go?

How long will you end up wandering?
What lies around that bend?
Another choice to make
Another path to break
Never to reach the end.

A road has too many choices
A road can lead you astray
Too much to see
Too much to be
Do not go that way.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Japanese homestay 2016

Every two years the ELS21 English language school in Sakai, Japan, bring some of their students across to Sydney for a two week stay with families from Alex's primary school.

Our previous student, Miyu, had left the school to focus on her high school studies so this time we hosted 13 (almost 14!) year old Momoka. Only for one week as they wanted to house the students in pairs and Momoka's friend was allergic to dogs. By the second week they were confident enough to stay alone with the host families.

We had also hosted teacher Machiko for the second week last time, but principal Mayumi wanted teachers to stay together this time. Poor Machiko had to leave early anyway due to her father having an accident.

Momoka arrived at our house feeling a bit under the weather with a cold so we decided to tone down the activities from last time and let her recover. I don't think she minded too much. Obsessed with Harry Potter, she asked to watch all of the first three movies of the series and tried to read her brand new English copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that the previous host had given her.

She also thrashed Alex at Sonic All Stars Racing on the PS3 and matched him on Just Dance. Don't mess with the Japanese youth when it comes to computer games!

Outings were a bit restricted by regular activities and other duties, plus Momoka's need to take it easy. We dragged her off to the America Travel Expo at Sydney Showgrounds at Olympic Park, feeling somewhat guilty for doing so, though needing to see if we could find any deals to salvage the points bookings we hold to the US.

We failed to find anything much useful at the Expo, but the trip turned out not to be such a waste. With the 2016 Olympics currently on in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil and the next Olympics to be held in Japan a visit to the old Sydney 2000 Olympic site was rather appropriate. Plus Momoka and Alex enjoyed the free climbing wall at the Expo and the playground outside. She certainly showed him how it's done.

We had a few food issues. I don't think our cooking was always popular and the Chinese restaurant visit saw her eat mainly rice. With more time I'm sure we would have found some better dishes for her. Momoka seemed to subsist mainly on strawberry jam with the odd sushi roll. She didn't like Vegemite (me neither!) but did like Jaffas. Plus, like me, she doesn't like mushrooms or octopus, which is difficult for someone coming from the Kansai area where takoyaki is king. Momoka tells me that the alternative is cheese filling. Must try!

Farewells were very sad. Momoka was a delight to have around the house, a very nice big sister to Alex and a very clean and polite guest.

Hopefully we can catch up with the folk of ELS21 again next time we visit Japan. And there's always two years from now...

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Raiders of the Lost Ark with the SSO

Of all the concerts this year the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's live performance of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the movie was the one I was most looking forward to. And we almost missed it!

Kids have a different sense of time and urgency to adults and just getting out of the house was a enough of a struggle. The Thai restaurant was just opposite the station, but it is never safe to assume a frequent and fast service when it comes to Sydney trains.

Google Maps said we would be a few minutes late. Okay, let's challenge the last bit, the walk.

Trackwork on the City Circle Line meant that we couldn't ride the Airport Line train direct to Circular Quay. Change at Wolli Creek, get out at Martin Place and run down Macquarie Street.

Only problem was that B doesn't do karate like Alex and I and doesn’t have quite the same fitness levels. So Google Maps was pretty accurate in the end.

Puffing, we showed the doorman our tickets and were ushered to our seats. Fortunately the conductor, Nicholas Buc, was giving an introductory talk. We'd made it just in time!

Our not cheap seats in the box had views of the orchestra, but the screen was a little bit obscured, a disappointment. Though I was here for the orchestra and the music, not the movie.

In my opinion the movie is a distraction, but it does serve to entertain the rest of the family and to force the orchestra to do its best. No room for lazy interpretation, they must be on the ball to synchronise with the screen.

And they were! This was the fifth live score performance I have attended, all with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House and it was by far my favourite. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the great adventure movies and the score is by the greatest film composer of all time: John Williams.

Though I love almost all of his scores, the eighties were my favourite period of his composition; the second and third Star Wars movies, ET and the first three Indiana Jones films, all from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Watching the orchestra below it became obvious how Williams created his lush sound: He utilises the full orchestra.

Strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, all playing at once, but playing counterpoint, multiple melodies and rhythms. There is so much the listen to, to listen for. The lietmotifs tell the story, the hint of exotic sounds from conventional instruments setting the scene. This is mastery of the orchestra.

The orchestra were mostly up to it, though the tuba sounded a little ragged at times. John Williams actually wrote a concerto for this frequently ignored instrument. I heard the Melbourne Symphony perform it a few years ago and Williams' certainly demands much from his tuba players.

The strength of Williams' score is evident in the the most exciting sequence of the movie, the desert chase. Both B and I were too busy observing the energy of the orchestra to watch the thrills on screen.

Alex was awake throughout the whole performance, despite its lateness after a busy Saturday, and, unlike Babe, there were only a couple of complaints from him. He is quite familiar with Indy's theme!

Harking back to the old days of cinema, there was even an intermission, after which the orchestra played Mutt's theme from the fourth Indiana Jones movie: Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.

Forget the so called Golden Days of cinema, the subject of the previous concert, this was Hollywood at its best. I'm so glad we made it!