alan little’s weblog archive for december 2003

origins of the indo-european languages

29th December 2003 permanent link

Continuing our late December theme of heated-but-probably-ultimately-futile historical controversies involving the term “Aryan”: apparently some geneticists think they have convincingly traced the origin of Indo-Euopean languages to around 9 to 10 thousand years ago in Anatolia. The original Nature article is subscription only; the abstract is here. And just like the last time a non-linguist came to this conclusion (the archaeologist Colin Renfrew in his 1987 book Archaeology and Language : The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins ), apparently linguists are unimpressed.

utter bollocks

part of their results are the fruit of begging the question, and the rest (circa 80%) is at the mercy of the “glottochronological clock”, which is as accurate as a sundial at night … the basic tenets of glottochronology are rubbish
Jacques Guy on sci.lang (original messages)

all their time estimates come from fourteen data points, deliberately chosen to have wide error bars … I should note that the selection of languages is dodgy as well
a commenter at languagehat

The geneticists in question are Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. They reached their conclusions by applying statical techniques normally used in evolutionary biology to linguistics. Linguists seem to have two basic issues with their conclusions. One is that they published in Nature – a journal with no linguistics expertise – and in the form of a five-page letter with nowhere near enough detail for a serious assessment of their methods. The other is that, from what little their letter describes of their method, it appears to be similar to a discredited technique in historical linguistics known as glottochronology, dating from the 1950s. Glottochronology attempted to date when languages that are known or assumed to have a common ancestor diverged by measuring differences in their vocabulary. Unfortunately the key assumption on which it was based – that the rate of vocabulary change over time in all languages is known and constant – is completely groundless. Gray and Atkinson are aware of this problem and claim that the statistical technique they used is somehow immune to it, but don’t provide any convincing explanation of how. It also seems to be unclear whether they did basic credibility checks, like using their technique to date historically known language splits (e.g. French, Italian and Spanish from Latin, Old English from Old German).

The most detailed explanation of the apparent problems that I’ve found is by Bill Poser in Language Log, a group weblog that is actually written by real linguists (oh no, not another bloody interesting weblog to read). There is another detailed critique by Peter Daniels in the sci.lang newsgroup – the whole thread is worth reading.

My attention was originally drawn to this by the gene expression weblog. The folks there seem to think the general hostility to Gray & Atkinson from linguists is at least partly a tribal reaction to outsiders trespassing on their turf. From what I’ve read, I disagree. It looks very much to me like the linguists are right – Gray & Atkinson at the very least have made some wild claims based on an unproven technique, and provided nowhere near enough explanation of what they have done to actually convince anybody.

Update on chariots: in the course of reading up on Gray & Atkinson, I came across references to chariots dated to 2100BC having been found in the southern Urals. A while ago I wrote at length about Robert Drews’ theories on chariots and Bronze Age warfare, and why I think the Rig Veda cannot be much older than western scholars generally think it is – i.e. somewhere around 1500 BC. The Urals chariot finds knock a rather large hole in Drews’ theory about the Greeks, which is based on the belief that the chariot was invented (a) south of the Caucasus and (b) not much earlier than about 1800 BC. I don’t see that it materially affects my opinion on the Vedas, though – chariots being known before 2100 BC on the Steppes still isn’t any kind of evidence that they were in use hundreds or thousands of years before that in northern India. More on this later.


related entries: Language Yoga

aubrey - armed and dangerous

29th December 2003 permanent link

Eric Raymond’s opinion of Master & Commander is similar to mine, but he isn’t as long-winded about it:

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was also a surprising treat. I've read all 20 of the Aubrey/Maturin novels. The movie doesn't capture their texture and depth — that would be impossible, they are deeply literary works — but as an adventure movie that refers to the books without insulting the reader's intelligence it works quite well.

(Eric’s comment is a small part of a long – but not long-winded – review of The Last Samurai. My automatic reaction to anything involving Tom Cruise is not to bother going to see it, but Eric makes it sound like this one could be worth making an exception.)

Michael Jennings confirms that if you’re not a fan of the books, Master & Commander is a good-but-not-great film:

I have not read the books but that summarises my reaction too. I enjoyed the film a lot, and the detail of the visual recreation of the Napoleonic Royal Navy struck me as stunning, but it was still somewhat short of being a great film. That said, given how many bad films I have seen this year, I thought it was well worth the five quid.

You should read the books, Michael.

Meanwhile, much correspondence back and forth with my friend Peter in London who may be an even bigger fan of the books than I am. (There’s probably no point reading any further unless you have both read the books and seen the film)

Peter: Good news on its popularity over here. In this morning's Metro I noticed that it is second in Box Office figures for London. Only Love Actually ahead of it. … An older audience than for the average Hollywood “movie” … and I suspect it's attracting people who can't be bothered with most Tinseltown offerings. It is making enough impact for Blair to be featured as “Master and Commander” in a Sunday Torygraph cartoon at the weekend.

In your references to Peter Weir you left out Gallipoli which should have given an indication that he was the right director [I haven’t seen it]

Me: Don't worry, I noticed all the references. Well, lots anyway - I can't have been 100% paying attention the whole time, it's a long film. Will buy the DVD when it's discounted, then I can check all of them. But that's actually my big misgiving about it as a film – it's far too much of a strung-together series of references for fans, doesn't really stand as a coherent work on its own.

There was also a bit too much Moby Dick in the section leading up to Cape Horn. Aubrey is not Ahab.

Peter: I don't agree about lack of coherence. I think you are looking at it too much through the eyes of a fan of the books. No doubt we are a fairly high proportion of the audience but for non-readers I would say it is just as coherent as most action films and more so than many and with relevant sub-plots which dovetail in nicely … there are incidents and dialogue from other books but they aren't random and do forward the plot for a non-reader.

Me: I didn't mean incoherent in the sense of completely incoherent – more in the sense of does it stand on its own merits as a great (clearly not) or even an outstandingly good (I still think not) film, as opposed to an enjoyable couple of hours action entertainment? I think not - which doesn't mean I have anything against people being entertained for a couple of hours.

But the Gregory Peck Hornblower is a better *film*

between the years

29th December 2003 permanent link

The Germans call the limbo week between Christmas and New Year zwischen den Jahren, “between the years”. I love this phrase, there’s no English equivalent that I’ve ever heard. Learning phrases that are more expressive than anything in your native language is one of the great things about living abroad and learning a foreign language.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Christmas with my family last week, and tomorrow we’re off to the mountains for New Year. I have no intention of taking my laptop with me and even if I did, I suspect wireless internet connections in the Bavarian Alps are still few and far between. Normal weblogging will be resumed some time next year.

more furtwängler

18th December 2003 permanent link

As a break from walking into a political firefight on samizdata, I did a bit of comparative listening to the 1944 Fürtwangler Eroica against a couple of other recordings I have. It’s head and shoulders the best.

I also did a bit of googling on Furtwängler’s career. Found that I’m not alone (at at any rate) in regarding the 1944 performance as the truly great Eroica recording, and nobody except me seems to have any qualms about the political correctness of listening to it. And I found a website with an excellent biographical article which I recommend reading. It makes it abundantly clear that Furtwängler wasn’t a Nazi – unlike von Karajan, who in addition to being an inferior and overrated conductor, was a party member. (Does this mean I now have to get rid of my von Karajan CDs? No great loss). The website unfortunately only works properly in Internet Explorer.

Also as a benefit of the samizdata discussion, I now know how to spell “Furtwängler” correctly – although nobody seems to have noticed that I didn’t before.

Update: I found an even better Furtwängler biography on Peter Gutmann's excellent website classical notes

related entries: Music

slashdotted (sort of)

17th December 2003 permanent link

Well. Brian Micklethwait samizdata’d my thoughts about Furtwängler’s Eroica, which is sort of like being slashdotted except the comments are generally intelligent.

In this case, though, the comments became a bit of a shouting match about the horrors of Communism, mixed in with veiled accusations of anti-German prejudice for saying the Germans were to blame for Nazism and of anti-Russian prejudice for saying the Russians weren’t to blame for Bolshevism. I think I have adequate grounds for pleading not guilty to either, and the horrors of Communism aren’t something I was ever disputing.

I was more interested in why it might be possible for some genuine creativity to survive under one form of tyranny but not under another; and in questioning my personal reaction of finding art from Nazi Germany inherently nauseating but art from the Soviet Union not, and whether there’s any justifiable reason for that other than the biases of my own upbringing.

Brian thinks there might be – “my gut feeling is that there was indeed something an order of magnitude worse about Nazi Germany”. We seem to be in a minority, and I’m less sure than I was that that position is actually defensible.

On the other hand, that means if it’s ok to enjoy Shostakovich, it’s also ok to enjoy Furtwängler.

UPDATE: On reflection, my reaction to the comments on samizdata was over-defensive. Quite a lot of people made the point, which I think is quite valid, that we still have an ingrained tendency to underestimate the horrors of communism that stems from generations of wilful blindness on the part of the western left, and possibly also still partly from pro-Russian wartime propaganda. One guy also expressed an interesting theory that I haven’t heard before, that one reason the Germans made the horrible mistake of voting for the Nazis was to save themselves from Communism. Which would make Hitler at least partly Lenin’s fault. I’m not sure about this, I don’t know how widely what really went on the Russia in the 1920s was known outside – although there were a lot of people of German descent living in Russia then, it’s probably reasonable to assume some of them must have been in touch with relatives in the west.

about to listen to …

16th December 2003 permanent link

A performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica”, by Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1944. There are hundreds of recordings of the Eroica, dozens of which are probably excellent; but this is supposed to be one of the handful of truly great ones according to well-informed opinion on I’m feeling distinctly queasy, though, about listening to and possibly enjoying a work of art produced under the Third Reich.

Why? I have no qualms about listening to Soviet music, Shostakovich for example. Yet Stalin was just as much of a monster as Hitler and the Soviet Union in the 1930s was at least as much of a horror as the Third Reich. So why does art produced under Stalin not make me queasy whereas art produced under Hitler does? Do I think the Soviet Union was in some ways a lesser evil than Nazi Germany? There’s not much to choose in terms of crude bodycount. But I still think it’s a good thing that the most important war memorial I’ve ever seen is two Soviet tanks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and not two panzers in Red Square; the people of Russia and Eastern Europe would have had an even worse time in the last fifty years if it had been the other way round. I think there also is a sense in which Hitler was something the German people did – they elected him and were enthusiastic about him for quite a while – whereas Stalin was something that happened to the Russians – the Bolsheviks came to power in a wartime military coup that their brilliant propaganda machine subsequently dressed up as a popular revolution.

And Shostakovich was always in and out of trouble with Stalin, whereas Furtwängler – although probablydefinitely not a Nazi himself – was idolized and treated as a cultural treasure by them.

In the Beethoven-loving and left wing household I grew up, Otto Klemperer – a German Jewish refugee from the Nazis - was held up as the ultimate Beethoven conductor. Furtwängler – widely regarded outside our house, I know now, as possibly the greatest Beethoven conductor of the recorded era – was never mentioned. I’m getting over this slowly: I’ve had a 1950s recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by him for a couple of years, although I don’t much like the 9th and don’t listen to it very often. This will be the first time I’ve ever listened to any of his wartime recordings. Can there possibly be any ethical difference, I wonder, between listening to the same piece of music, conducted by the same conductor with an orchestra with probably 90% of the same musicians, because one was recorded ten years later under a different government?

Something else odd that occurs to me is that Nazi Germany may have been capable of producing excellent performances of old German art, but it’s impossible to imagine it ever producing anything new and worthwhile. Whereas quite a bit of worthwhile art was produced in Soviet Russia. Why?

For more thoughts around this subject, see Brian Micklethwait’s musings on the death of Leni Riefenstahl, and his excellent post on “what Hitler did to classical music by loving it”.

At the risk of sounding trivial after talking about great and portentous things: I got this version of the Eroica from emusic, so I will also be interested to see whether it’s actually worth listening to this kind of music on mp3, or if it’s just a way to find out if the cd is worth buying.

From worrying about writing trivia, to why is creativity possible under some forms of tyranny but not others, in barely over a week. Could this be a world record?

UPDATE. I listened to it, and oh my god it’s superb. The best performance I’ve ever heard, I think. I certainly prefer it to Klemperer, my previous favourite. Sound quality isn’t bad either, for an mp3 of a 1940s mono recording (nobody ever said the Third Reich didn’t have good engineers). The highlights of the horns are blown out, but I don’t know enough about these things to know whether the original recording is to blame for that or the mp3 compression. Maybe I’ll buy the cd to find out.

related entries: Music

link exchange is no robbery

15th December 2003 permanent link

I get a steady trickle of offers to exchange links, most commonly with my yoga pages. Some of them are blatant paid directory scams which I ignore. A lot of them are from people with genuine, reputable yoga-related businesses, in which case I generally thank them politely and tell them that I don’t link to commercial sites unless I know the people involved personally and/or have done business with them.

I reserve the right to make arbitrary exceptions to my own policies, though, and I’m making one for, who wrote to let me know that I’m on their links page. Why? Partly, I think, because I initially thought their mail looked like the scam-link type – such is the sad state of paranoia with strangers necessary on the internet these days – and was so relieved to find it wasn’t that I immediately liked them; and partly because I actually find what they’re trying to sell interesting.

I haven’t had time to look at the site in detail yet, but they appear to be selling a book about a method of “eye yoga” that’s supposed to be able to corrective defective sight without resorting to glasses or surgery. I’ve heard of something before called Bates Method that claims to be able to do this; a friend of mine practiced it and said she found it worked when she put time and effort into it, but not all the time. I would certainly be interested in something like that if I thought it was practical. Glasses are a pain sometimes. I tried contact lenses but couldn’t get the hang of putting them in. (My optician said men often find that harder to learn than women – her theory was that women are used to things like mascara brushes, and so have learned to overcome the reflex fear of things coming near the eyes.) I’ve thought about laser surgery too, but now I’m a dad I have more important things to spend my money on.

In principle I’m sure it must be possible to learn some degree of voluntary control over the focusing muscles of the eyes and/or the low level software processing that goes on behind them. It’s possible for advanced yogis to learn to voluntarily stop their own heart – I’ve heard of a couple of cases of this from the 1930s. The teacher I studied with in India says his teacher could do it. (My teacher, however, can’t, and is one of the most advanced yoga masters alive today – if his generation didn’t learn to do it, the skill may have been lost). If people can learn to stop their hearts, how hard can it be to learn to squeeze your eyeballs into a slightly different shape? I suspect it would require too much time and discipline to be a practical everyday solution for most people (and I include myself in that), but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to …

13th December 2003 permanent link

An interesting arrangement of Mozart’s string quintet in B Flat Major k.174 featuring the Tátrai String Quartet, Anna Mauthner (viola), baby Jack (soprano) and our landlord Herr Buchbauer downstairs (hammerdrill)

related entries: Music

more thoughts on python

11th December 2003 permanent link

David Pinn asked me what I now think of python.

I’ve been using python part time for a few months now, and I’ve already written enthusiastically about it several times. It’s a really nice language. I find some parts of the class system a bit obscure and wacky, but in general I love it. It’s concise, elegant, powerful, and treats the programmer as an adult. It assumes you know what you’re doing and can generally be counted on to behave decently. Very unlike, say, perl – concise and powerful, undeniably, but “elegant” only for very specific values of elegant – or java, with its paranoid nanny of a compiler that assumes you are an imbecile.

If a piece of design tells you about the designer as a person – and I think it does – then Guido van Rossum must be a seriously nice guy.

However. A serious modern development environment needs more than a nice language. It needs solid, standard frameworks for web applications, GUI development, interacting with common databases and crunching XML. The standard GUI doesn’t even have to be any good – just look at Java. Python has (nearly) one of the above.

The XML tools, from what I’ve seen, are excellent. So far my weblog tool gets by with the standard libraries, and if I wanted to get more sophisiticated it’s not at all clear to me whether I should be using 4suite or libxml2. But either way, in this case there’s no doubt that I can get something that is powerful and reasonably standard and supported. From what I’ve seen of third party python libraries so far, though, I suspect installation of either of them on OS X might not be completely plug’n’play.

For GUIs, python has nothing that comes as standard. wxPython seems to be the current preferred cross platform library, but the only wxPython GUI I’ve actually seen – the Chandler alpha release – looks dreadful. I hope it’s just because they haven’t got round to addressing look & feel yet – but if Chandler is supposed to be some wonderful poster child for open source, cross platform end user apps with a professional standard of fit & finish, perhaps they should. PyObjC sounds like it might be the way to go for Mac GUI development, but it’s not cross platform.

Web applications. Complete shambles. There’s no standard way of even hooking up to a web server, never mind application frameworks. If I want something better than CGI, what’s the official (sanctioned-by-consensus would also suffice) equivalent to mod_perl or mod_php? Is it mod_python? mod_snake? Neither? How am I supposed to know? And if I want to go more towards frameworks, there’s zope which has a reputation for being very powerful but a bit of a wierd & wonderful self-contained world, webware which is a nice prototype, and seemingly dozens of other ideas floating around in various states of half-finishedness. This is a bad mess. What to do about it is a constantly recurring topic on comp.lang.python – more of my thoughts on the matter in this discussion.

For databases – well, I haven’t got round to trying to fix the mysql installation for OS X. But to not work with the most popular open source database on the most popular desktop unix: really not good.

Compare and contrast Java. Java is the COBOL of the 21st century. It’s nowhere near as nice a language as python, but it’s not all that bad. The world (especially Bangalore) is full of competent Java programers. It has stable, standard libraries and frameworks for doing just about anything you could possibly imagine (even GUIs if you don’t mind them being ugly and slow). It’s no wonder it has solidly established itself as the standard language for corporate back office development.

Whereas python is a lot of fun, but I have a hard time seeing how I could seriously recommend it for anything except fairly small standalone projects at the moment. Which is a shame.

related entries: Programming

big thumbs up

8th December 2003 permanent link

… for Master & Commander. For fans of the books, that is – I can’t see it being half as much fun for the rest of the audience. (If there is a “rest of the audience”. The English language cinema in Munich where I just saw it wasn’t exactly packed)

They’ve loosely followed the story of one of the books (the Far side of the World, not surprisingly) but the thing is packed with nicely-done references to bits from quite a few of the of the books. The final battle scene is basically the final battle scene from the first novel, Master and Commander, and it’s done very well indeed. Some of the atmospheric sailing scenes are done superbly too – the Cape Horn storm scene is fantastic, and so is becalmed in the tropical heat. They’ve invented a couple of major scenes that aren’t in the books – the end of the first battle, and a man overboard in the storm – and done them really well. The second one in particular is totally gripping, very true to the spirit of the story, and contributes to the plot.

I didn’t really like the camera work and the lighting, but I totally see what they were trying to do with it and they did it well. (Update 4th March 2004 – they won the Oscar for best cinematography). A lot of it is very dark, very tightly shot and visually quite cluttered and oppressive. It’s almost all shot within the ship, very few long shots. This does two things. One is that it conveys just how claustrophobic it must have been to have two hundred men packed into a small frigate – you actually get more sense of that than in the books. The other is that consciously or otherwise – and they do it so well I think they must have been doing it deliberately – they have the look of contemporary paintings of sea battles off perfectly. It’s like two hours of looking at oil paintings in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich. On the other hand, the constant tight, oppressive within-the-ship shots, with little variation in perspective, do get wearing. There are only a couple of shots in the whole thing I would actually regard as beautiful, whereas the books are full of visual beauty.

Russell Crowe is actually a good Jack Aubrey. He isn’t quite the Jack Aubrey in my mind’s eye, but he’s a lot closer than I expected and I forgive him. Paul Bethany plays the part of the Stephen Maturin in the film very well, although the part is really no more than a placeholder for the real Stephen Maturin in the books. Tom Pullings is a minor part in the film, but is played absolutely right. Killick – also just right. But what were they thinking casting the hobbit guy as Barret Bonden? He’s completely wrong (and not just because he once played a hobbit).

They did a good job with the mix of ages – most of the crew very young, including the huge amount of responsibility junior officers in their teens were expected to cope with, but plus a fair proportion of much older seamen and officers, guys in their fifties and sixties. This is all part of the huge amount of effort they obviously put into getting the look just right.

Nice soundtrack.

Great fun if you’re a fan of the books but can keep an open mind about the fact that what you can do in a two hour film is fundamentally different from what you can do in seventeen novels. They’ve really done a nice job. I didn’t feel in the least disappointed, irritated or personally betrayed. Not a great film otherwise, although the guys I went with seemed to enjoy it.

new winter hat

8th December 2003 permanent link

One of the pluses of having a Russian girlfriend is that when she insults you, at least the insults are graphic and historically well-informed. When I revealed my new winter hat to Maria (after a week of sneaking around in it secretly when she wasn't looking), her reaction was “you look like a fascist at the gates of Moscow in 1941”. Wow. That’s a bit long for everyday use, though, so now it’s my “Stalingrad hat”

(I think it’s a very fine and stylish hat, and may even post a picture of it here one day to prove it)

oops, maybe i don’t

4th December 2003 permanent link

A few minutes’ fact-checking reveals that Leica’s Digilux 2 announcement may not be as impressive as I thought after all, and teaches me a valuable lesson about not being impressed by press releases.

First, and worst, it uses SD cards for storage. These are the little postage stamp-sized things used in smartphones. Compared to the microdrives used by all serious digital photographers, they’re expensive and pathetically small. The largest SD cards available seem to be 512MB, and they cost over $300. A basic 1 gigabyte microdrive goes for about $150; 2 gigabytes aren’t much more and 4 gigabyte drives are either already out or will be soon.

It may be that SD cards have some great compensating technical advantage – let’s assume for the sake of argument that Leica’s engineers aren’t completely stupid. Perhaps they are much faster, or have much lower power consumption, or something. I don’t know. It certainly seems a reasonable bet that the mass market for smartphones will improve their price/capacity rapidly.


The people who are going to appreciate the benefits of speed and handling in a digicam are serious photographers, many of whom already have or are considering digital SLRs. And this Leica starts to look like a seriously expensive second camera if you also have to buy a whole second set of non-standard storage cards. Unless the Leica’s speed and image quality are really, stunningly better than the competition – which seems unlikely – SD cards could be a fatal mistake.

Sensor size. Not as exciting as I thought. The so-called 2/3” sensor size that Leica are using gives about 50% more area per pixel, for the same pixel count, than the standard digicam sensor size. But Leica aren’t the only people using this size, and it’s still only about a fifth of the area per pixel of a typical 6 megapixel SLR. Useful tutorials on digital camera sensor sizes by Bob Atkins on, and, for some reason, on this Bangladeshi website (scroll down).

Leica digicams are, I now know, actually manufactured by Panasonic. Which means that this one’s cast magnesium body will probably be well made, but no better than lots of other also-magnesium-bodied cameras from Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc. etc.

The Leica M Series is the Porsche 911 of cameras, but Leica’s other efforts have always been a decidedly mixed bunch. Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape, who is a Leica M Series fan and has probably also used and/or tested more high end digital cameras than anybody else, says of the Digilux 2:

… it could well be an attractive digicam. A digital M series Leica it's not though, regardless of the cosmetics.

related entries: Photography

oh my god i want one

4th December 2003 permanent link

I want one of these new Leica digicams.

I have a digicam – a 3 megapixel Canon G1 that I paid far too much money for about three years ago and is now worth hardly anything. It’s a perfectly decent camera in terms of the picture quality it’s capable of producing, but it’s so ergonomically horrible and slow that I have never liked it and hardly ever use it. The Canon S50 that lots of people seem to really love at the moment (including my brother and I’ve had a play with his) is basically a sleeker, higher res version of the same thing. Lovely results, but I still don’t enjoy using it – too slow, and everything controlled by myriads of little buttons and menus that you have to look at to use, when you should be looking at what you want to photograph.

Time between pressing the button and the shutter actually opening:

This Leica, on the other hand, is supposed to be fast. It won’t be as fast as an M Series, and I don’t see them quoting a figure anywhere, but Leica have a history of getting this right. It has proper manual controls as god intended – focus, zoom and aperture controlled by rings on the lens barrel, shutter speed by a dial on top near the shutter button, so you can operate it while looking at things you want to photograph instead of peering at dozens of tiny little buttons and menu options.

It has a big sensor. A pixel does not equal a pixel. For the same resolution, a physically bigger sensor will produce a better image because bigger pixels gather more light, so they can measure it more accurately and are less subject to noise. This is why six megapixel SLRs are capable of producing a lot better images than five megapixel digicams, and is also grounds for scepticism about Sony’s announcement of an 8 megapixel digicam with the smallest physical pixels of any production camera. The sensor on this Leica is somewhere between normal digicam size (tiny) and SLR size.

And it has a Leica lens. There’s a lot of mystique and bullshit about German lenses, and the best Japanese lenses these days are very good. But the very best Leica and Zeiss lenses are still visibly a bit better. Of course, the lens on this thing may or may not be one of Leica’s very best efforts, but if they have any sense it will be. Leica make very expensive high end cameras (I haven’t seen a price mentioned for this one yet); their selling points are lens quality, build quality and ergonomics. They are the Porsche of cameras. They have to stay better than the competition on all of these things to have any hope of surviving.

I found out about this from Tim Bray.

related entries: Photography

on writing trivia

3rd December 2003 permanent link

I’ve been thinking about what I’m actually doing with this weblog. Writing-wise, it’s not as good as the one I kept a couple of years ago when I was studying yoga in India. That one had a coherent theme — yoga studies plus the adventures of Alan in a strange land — and a clear target audience — initially my friends & family back home, and gradually a worldwide audience of yoga students who, I could safely assume, at least had some common grasp of what I was writing about. And I had abundant time. All the actual typing was done in short bursts at internet cafés, but I had plenty of quiet time outside of yoga classes to allow things to compose themselves in my head.

I was quite an internet hit du jour at the time among the limited circle of web-surfing ashtanga yoga students, and I still get a certain amount of mail about it. It’s certainly the piece of writing I’m most proud of ever having done.

This weblog, on the other hand, isn’t. There’s no coherent theme to it, and I find the things I’m writing are mostly unrelated scraps of trivia.

The lack of a coherent theme is a deliberate experiment. I used to have several pages maintained via blogger that I used as semi-private notebooks for various projects. Semi-private in the sense that I made no effort to publicise them or to ensure that what I wrote in them made sense to anybody but me, but they were on the web and anybody else who stumbled across them was welcome to read them. Now everything goes in one bucket, with subject archives to maintain some illusion of coherence for those who value that sort of thing.

Putting everything in one meant-for-public-consumption weblog is different from just merging what what used to go in the notebooks – it’s different when I write as if I actually think somebody else might read the stuff. So this isn't the amalgam of the old notebook pages. (Unfortunately, nothing else is a solution to the old notebook problem yet either. The current experimental approach is sending myself email, which then gets filed away in a folder and never looked at again. Not a huge success. There has to be a solution to this one, and one day I’ll think of it and build it.)

Meanwhile back at the weblog, I have a full time job and a six month old baby. Writing is something that takes place half an hour at a time on the train to and from work, or ten minutes at a time in the office after lunch. Half an hour, or ten minutes, is enough to keep up with the email backlog (just about) or write a throwaway paragraph about something I saw on the web. It doesn't allow for a great deal of carefully considered soul searching. I do have some ideas and perpetually-unfinished drafts of deep soul-searching, but the likelihood that I’ll find the time and mental energy to get many of them into publishable form in the foreseeable future is small.

I’m not obsessed with any single topic – US electoral politics, say, or the war in Iraq (for the record, I think deposing Saddam by force was a good idea. Most of my friends disagree). I don't have time to maintain several weblogs, and contribute to others, with long and interesting essays on a variety of subjects like, say, Michael Jennings or Brian Micklethwait. I've a feeling I should perhaps write more about things I do care deeply about, yoga for example – but I barely have time at the moment to even do a rudimentary yoga practice, much less write about it.

So why am I doing this?

Partly because I'm building my own publishing tool in parallel with with wriitng the stuff I’m publishing. I’m doing that as a way of learning the lovely python programming language, and it’s (mostly) fun. I don’t believe in wasting my time doing abstract programming exercises to learn things - far better to have a real project with a result that you actually want to achieve. That way you’re motivated to keep going – and to fix bugs and care about quality, if you’re publishing the results on the web for all the world to see.

And I like writing. I often find little things composing themselves in my head while I’m walking or cycling around; having a weblog is good motivation to write them down and put them out into the world on the offchance that somebody else might find them interesting too.

Also, short + written quickly does not necessarily always = trivial. The little piece I wrote a little while ago about Pattabhi Jois’s yoga teaching style is not trivial in my opinion, even though it’s (a) short and (b) originated as a comment on somebody else’s weblog.

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