Friday, 12 February 2016

Mathematics and Music

I think maths is beautiful. I've been saying this since I was in my teens and I don't think I'll stop until the day I stop being able to add one and one to make two. At the same time, I understand that a lot of people find maths very abstract and difficult to make sense of. (To me, maths is pretty much concrete, so I've had to actually put effort into understanding that other people don't see the world the same way.)

I also think music is beautiful. I try my hardest to keep an open mind; I frequently fail, but hey, my music taste is now pretty eclectic. Or maybe just random, if you're feeling uncharitable.

Over the summer, I had to write a vacation essay. Quite unsurprisingly, I chose to work on the physics of music. Slightly more surprisingly (at least to me), my friends all thought I was insane for working on something so boring.

I don't blame them; the basic physics of a simple harmonic oscillator is important, but it's not exactly the most exciting thing in the world. And if you find that off-putting, why dig deeper?

Well, I dug deeper because I thought that there must be something interesting down there - and I was right. The physics of music is a huge field, even crossing over with history and psychology at certain points. When I was doing my research, I came across so many things - far too many things to put in an essay - the way that hearing is affected by pressure, the mental maps we make of relations between notes and keys, the way we rely on imperfections in tuning and rhythm to make music what it is, the cold mathematics that meant no stack of perfect fifths could fit in an octave and gave birth to myriad temperaments, and the fractal geometry underlying all music and speech. And more. Music is actually incredibly complex when you think about it mathematically - yes, even those genres you love to bash for being too simple are reasonably complicated. From analysing the frequency of intervals, which can tell you about the character of a piece, to analysing the structure, to actually thinking about making instruments and designing concert halls and everything in between, the amount of physics, mathematics and psychology which goes into making even the simplest of pieces is just mind-boggling.

A lot of people have trouble with maths because of how abstract it is. I'm the opposite: the more abstract the maths, the happier I am. Even if the maths is nearly useless, I don't care as long as it has an internal beauty to it. And mathematical beauty is a concept which is really hard to explain to non-mathematicians - but I think I've found my analogue.

Think of your favourite piece of music ever. Really unpick it in your head - the structure, the instrumentation, the melodies, the harmonies, the chord progressions, the lyrics if there are anyway. Think about how amazingly it's constructed. Think about how achingly beautiful that is. Underneath that, underpinning it all, is mathematics - a simply stunning amount of mathematics, in dazzlingly rich detail. Musical beauty is mathematical beauty put into practice. And when the two intersect and intertwine, words are not enough to describe that beauty.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Classical music and (unintentional) elitism

The other day I read a comment that really annoyed me about how normal people just can't get classical music, so classical musicians have a gift that they should share with the world.

I am fully in support of the second part. I think art music might be complex, but it's amazingly fun to make and I want as many people as possible to have the chance to make that music. The first part? Not so much.

I'm one of those "normal people" (well, not quite, but I'll come onto that later). I'm not a particularly talented musician, mostly because while I like music it doesn't have the same attraction for me that other subjects do. I got into music because of my amazing, gifted director John and because of practising a lot. That's all that happened. I don't have some sort of special classical music organ (pun unintended - sorry!) in my body. I'm an average schmo who trained a bit. I don't deserve to be elevated to an elite class. People who don't have my training don't deserve to be kicked downstairs.

Well, I lied; I'm not quite average. You see, I come from a well-heeled middle-class family. This means that my parents were able to pay for music lessons, send me to a private school where I met the amazing music director, allow me to stay behind to perform, let me go on get the picture. Money, the desire for cultural capital and my mother being a music teacher all contributed.

Actually, I'd go so far as to say that money is what set me apart. True, no amount of money will make up for a lack of passion or practice, but when music education in this country is a lottery and not so many schools or families can afford tuition, let alone instrument costs, being able to pay for lessons or going to a school where they have a decent music budget is a huge barrier. Believe me (and others) when we say that this barrier has a huge effect on who ends up being able to seriously pursue music.

I really do believe that normal people can get classical music and that one of the many reasons people don't is lack of exposure. I have to admit that this is partly idealism. But I also think that the idea of classical musicians being somehow apart from the rest of us ordinary mortals is damaging for everyone.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Preparing for death

I have a fear of death. It is perhaps more accurate to say that I have existential anxiety about death – the knowledge that everyone around me is going to die and that the last thing I ever do will be failing and shutting down my bodily functions. At the moment, it’s inevitable and in some ways there’s an upside to that – poor quality of life can be unbearable. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m a selfish, moody little bugger; I want to experience the world and learn and see and do, and I’m upset that I won’t get to learn and see and do everything before I die. I’m also upset that death is, as far as we know, permanent; I’m going to lose the people I love and never get them back, and one day I’m going to lose my consciousness permanently. The atoms that made me up will go into the earth and the air and help to make up different people, and maybe I will leave a legacy – love, kindness or knowledge – but that’s no substitute for losing my entire being and never, ever being conscious again, never able to laugh or talk or cry, to feel the rain on my glasses or the sun on my skin.

I’m still quite young and to the best of my knowledge not suffering from any serious illness, so I suppose some people might laugh off my fear of death. I’ve got years, after all – but eventually I’m going to die. This is trivial. I can’t prevent it.

So I’m doing what I do in any situation where I don’t know what I’m doing: I learn. I have been devouring resources on the internet and ordering books. I suppose many people might want to avoid doing that, but it makes me feel a little calmer. Yes, death is coming, but with knowledge I can mentally prepare myself.

I don’t want to die, but it’s important and inevitable; I feel that ignoring it is dishonest. In fact, I want to prepare for it. I want to prepare for it so thoroughly that by the time I’m in my last few days of life I’ll be so well-prepared for what it all entails it will be a boring chore. I’ll be able to relax myself before I say goodbye to everyone one last time.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Why I love CoderDojo (and you should, too)

On Sunday I got up early to pack up laptops and LEGO onto trolleys, strike out into Greater Manchester, and hope for the best. I had to get up on a freezing morning, spend most of the day on my feet, and pack up after everyone. I loved it.

Why? Well, on that day something called CoderDojo happened.

Manchester CoderDojo takes place on the second Sunday of every month. Broadly speaking, a bunch of volunteers come together, take some computing bits and bobs with them, and teach kids about the joys of programming.

When I was a little girl, I used to be a member of something called NAGC (the National Association for Gifted Children), which you might know better as Potential Plus UK. Broadly speaking, it puts on events for gifted and talented children (in the top 5% of the population) where they can meet each other and learn about things beyond an often restrictive school curriculum. To children who are often isolated, bored and restless, this is a lifeline. I credit NAGC with helping me survive childhood.

CoderDojo is a bit like that, although we have a wider ability range - some children we can still help with our Mindstorms kits, some children were born in the iPhone age and are already coding apps (eek!). The organisation I volunteer with puts on some really, really popular workshops there, although that might just be because we have little robots running around.

I really like helping out with CoderDojo because of the concept. Whether you think coding's fun or frustrating or both, you probably won't go a day in your life without using some kind of program to help you get by. I know lots of people would have benefited from having some introduction and challenge and general mucking around, rather than sitting around in IT classes learning how to turn computers on and make spreadsheets. (No joke - that's what we did at school until I was 14!)

More than that, I love volunteering because of the people. The CoderDojo I volunteer at has volunteers and guests from around Greater Manchester, so you get to meet all sorts of people - students, people who work in STEM, people who work in outreach, families who are really invested in programming, absolute beginners...On a good day, when talking to people doesn't exhaust me too much, I absolutely love it. I love seeing a child's face light up when they understand a concept. I love seeing parents nurturing their children's love of computing. And I love being able to share ideas with people - a lot of people are really enthusiastic about Robogals' work and want us to do schools workshops or coding clubs. It's something I never thought a shy person like me would enjoy doing, but hey, the world's a weird place.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Shadow of the Other

I feel like I should clarify a few things.

I am Israeli. It's a part of me I can't get rid of. This doesn't make me special or exotic. I'm just me. All of this becomes relevant.

If you know anything about international politics, you'll know about Israel and Palestine. Some of you will say that Israel is illegitimate, others that Palestine was not and never will be a state. Some of you will argue for Israel, others for Palestine. Some of you will say that they're both awful. Either way, everyone expects you to choose a tribe.

It's a funny old thing, being a naturalised British citizen. Seen as a Briton it is natural and accepted that I have individual opinions. It is nothing remarkable that I should disagree with my government, and people are generally happy for me to speak about my experiences.

Seen as an Israeli, things are very different. Suddenly, I'm not Osnat who lives down the road; I'm Osnat the foreigner, Osnat who is the ambassador for a country she left when she was very young - and who never asked to be the ambassador. As an Israeli, I feel like Westerners don't understand that I'm capable of opposing the actions of the State of Israel. I feel like they want me to be either the bloodthirsty oppressor who murders Palestinian children or the last defence against those eeeeeeeeevil Muslims. Either way, I'm shouted over by Westerners. This isn't to make me out to be the real victim here - Palestinians have it much worse than I do, for sure. This is to point out that I am still considered an Other, someone who doesn't deserve any better than being caricatured, whereas Westerners get to have individual variation.

The reality is slightly more complex. The reality is that I oppose what I consider to be Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. As a result, some people consider me to be a self-hating Jew or a traitor. I can't say I'm hugely happy about either of these labels; I don't see how wanting people to live in peace and freedom is "self-hating".

Oh yeah, did I mention that some people still hate me because I'm Israeli? I can't take this from Westerners. If I'm a terrible person because I was born on colonised land, if I have blood on my hands because I was born within a particular set of borders, people who were born within other particular sets of borders - sets of borders where governments colonised an awful lot of the globe - are up to their eyeballs in blood.

I have spent enough time crying and wishing I never existed because of people like that. It took me a long time to undo the idea that I'm irredeemably awful because I'm Israeli. I am still undoing that idea.

I will not bow and scrape and grovel to people who wish I never existed. If they hate my existence, I will resist them. That means if you go on and on about how Jews or Zionists (let's face it, how many people just use Zionist as a substitute for "Jew I don't like" instead of using it with an awareness of cultural and historical context?) or Israelis are responsible for all evil in the world, I will not be silent. I am not the good little token Jew you can drag out when you want to show that you're not really a bigot. I have my own life and my own voice and my own work to be doing. Prejudiced people get in the way of that.

This doesn't mean that I'm anti-Palestine, it means that I've got a spine and I'm not going to fawn over people who hate me for stupid reasons. I am not the shadow of the Other. I have agency, a conscience, and a surprising lack of patience for people who don't understand these things.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

You've got hate? Fuck you, I've got chicken soup.

Full disclosure: I'm Israeli. An Israeli of Jewish descent (though I don't believe). If you want to read those sentences and judge me based off that alone, that's your decision. It says more about you than it ever will about me.

Israel does a lot of blameworthy and utterly despicable things. On the balance of things, that seems very true and thus (in my eyes) not exceptionally controversial. We can clutch at our pearls and talk around our dinner table about how horrible all these things are, but fine talk doesn't stop bombs from falling.

Some people seem to believe that because we have evidence of Israel doing bad things, Israel must also be responsible for anything a non-Israeli thinks Israel did. To hell with the evidence, we have an agenda to push here! 9/11? Israel did it. Paris attacks? Israel did it. Your toast's a bit burnt? You guessed it, Israelis have a vested interest in...mildly inconveniencing you. Forget paying rent and making a living, our real concern is spoiling random people's breakfasts.

As you can see, this very quickly gets ridiculous. Let's politicise it and make it even more ridiculous. Lots of people think that ISIS is an Israeli creation, because ISIS is evil and Israel is evil so Israel must be behind ISIS. This is a bit like arguing that because chocolate is delicious and strawberries are delicious, chocolate is made out of strawberries. Anyway, I can use lots of nice shiny facts and analogies, but the people who argue this aren't particularly interested in facts. For its part, ISIS hates Iran guessed it...thinks Iran is controlled by Israel. Using the exact same logic. Of course, depending on who you listen to, Israel also controls the US and UK. And presumably your toaster. Damn Israelis burning toast.

Hold up! If you listen to everyone, Israel ends up controlling most of the world - including groups that hate each other and are accusing each other of being Israeli creations.

Now, it's very sweet and flattering that these people think we're so powerful, but we're a tiny country in the Middle East and most Westerners couldn't place Israel on a map. Come on, the British Empire was the largest in history and even then it only controlled a quarter of the world. How do you expect a tiny, disputed strip of land to do more than that - and with less oil to boot?

I'm taking the piss because that's all I can do. Because honestly, people may hate me purely for being born in the wrong set of arbitrary borders - and that's all it is - but in the West, a lot of these people are too scared to do anything. Not all. But most. A lot of these people, I'm betting, have never met a real live Israeli before and tend to other us, to see us as demonic creatures. I'll bet good money that if I sat down and talked to someone who believes Israel is the root of all evil over a nice cup of tea, they'd come to realise that we're just as human as they are - which in some ways is the scary part. It opens up the possibility that if they'd been born under different skies and raised differently, they'd have done unspeakable things.

I'll be honest: I've tried to reason with these people online and it hasn't worked. It's more difficult if they don't realise that there's a human on the other side of the screen. Frankly, I don't care to meet them either, because I don't particularly enjoy associating with bigoted cowards (although I'd still make them tea). So I laugh at them instead. I laugh because really, it's funny ascribing that much power to a country they can't point to on a map. I laugh because it's funny that they turn ordinary people into supervillains. I laugh because they do stupid things like try to post their addresses publicly.

I laugh because ultimately, when reasoning fails, comedy is not only bloodless but also absolutely devastating in the right hands. Forget insults or aggression; humour can destroy a group's reputation forever.

These people, who think Israelis are irredeemably evil, expect me to respond like a thuggish brute. The best thing I can do is to rise above that, to show them that while I think they're awful people I can still respond with kindness and love, to confuse them. And then to laugh at them, because they don't deserve to be taken seriously.

They may have hate. Fuck them, I've got chicken soup.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

5 things I want to do before I graduate

So I've kind of left this blog to gather dust over the summer. Between actual uni work, travelling all over Britain to sing in different choirs, and grieving over losing family, I've had bigger things to think about. Sorry to my mum and the 0.5 of a person who reads this website.

But now it's September. The leaves are turning red and gold and brown and the weather is very definitely confirming that yes, it's autumn now and you need to wrap up warm. The kids are back at school, as are the grumpy, angsty adolescents. And tomorrow the first proper week of lectures starts. The lecturers are drilling us with rhetoric about how hard second year is. It's not exactly subtle, but I've fucked up enough to learn that I need to work damn hard and damn efficiently. What's more, this year is really important; not only does it cover the deep core of practical skills and the foundations of my degree, but it also determines whether I get to stay on my MPhys course - and whether I get to spend next year studying in France.

To stop waffling and cut the bullshit, it's crucial that I get this year right. So very little blog time. At the same time, I feel like in just a year I've grown up so much. I've had to put down roots in a new city with hardly any support network. I've had to sort out my own medical care. I've improved so much in lab. I've had to balance my studies, my life with my friends and a relationship where my partner and I live nearly 300 miles apart. I haven't got it perfect; I've made a hell of a lot of mistakes. But I'm just about on track to do the things I desperately want to do and I'm in a much better place than I was last September. Actually, I'm really looking forward to properly starting second year. I'm really hoping it goes better than last year.

All the same, I've still got 3 years left of my degree and so much of Manchester left to explore. I don't know what's going to happen to me after I finish my degree, so I don't know if I'll still be living there.

So with the help of my amazing friend/housemate/PASS leader/lab partner/general partner in crime, physics and other such things, here's a list of 5 things to do before graduation!

1. End up in The Tab. Come on, everyone reads it.

2. Finally actually make it to Remake Remodel.

3. Go have that icing cupcake (as a shoutout to the Ising model...get it? Terrible pun, I know) in northern quarter.

4. Get to the jazz club. Again, in northern quarter, but jazz...Nice.

5. Go walking in the Peak District.

There's one thing that I've missed off my official list, because I've done it already: going on University Challenge.

Yes, I was that person who yelled "It's not that one!" at the top of my lungs and let down the entire university. My apologies. I promise that the rest of the team are actually much better in real life, but I can't say the same of myself.

(I also yelled "SHIT!" at earsplitting volume, got applauded for swearing on that most venerable of quiz shows, and also got called a "very naughty woman" by Jeremy Paxman, but unfortunately all of that was cut from the broadcast. Shame.)

For all that I fucked up on the night, though, I had a hell of a lot of fun and it was a massive privilege to be able to do something that difficult. It's not something I'm going to forget easily - especially since I've been teased about it a couple of times - and I think it's an experience that taught me a lot.