alan little’s weblog archive for february 2004

debugging dsl

29th February 2004 permanent link

Michael Jennings mentions that he generally doesn’t mind being roped in as a volunteer tech support service, but isn’t keen to get involved in one particular friend’s home networking issues. Very wise, as I explained to him:

I know how you feel about the ethernet thing. Stay away. Our home internet connection went AWOL last week. It's surprising when you come to think about it to realise how many links / points of failure there are in the chain that connects my PC to The Internet. Two whole evenings' worth, in fact.

Hint: if you have to troubleshoot a long chain of possible points of failure, start with the component that the baby has been banging on the floor. Or to put it another way, I need to buy a cupboard for my DSL modem and router.

… but we spent yesterday scouring the furniture shops of Munich, and for some bizarre reason small cupboards seem to be almost non-existent. The few that do exist are either slightly too big for the space we have, or out of stock.

(Please don’t ask me about the other evening I spent a couple of weeks ago trying to set up a German internet dialup connection on a PC with Russian language Windows 98. Tempers were lost.)

And that’s it for February 29th postings for the next four years.

yoga workshop

28th February 2004 permanent link

I was sorting through some photos with a view to a weblog entry / photo gallery page on yoga photography, and I came cross this one that I took a couple of years ago of my teacher, Bettina Anner, in action.

Bettina Anner
Bettina Anner

… which reminded me that I promised to link to the website for the classes she is teaching in Tuscany this summer, when she gets back from her current spell in India studying with Pattabhi Jois. It’s now up,, or you can still email the organiser, Peter Kollbach, for details.

related entries: Yoga

aloo chana masala

28th February 2004 permanent link

The slow morph into Alan’s Recipe Weblog continues with my own recipe for aloo chana masala, chickpea and potato curry. This makes no claim to be an authentic Indian recipe, but after over twenty years’ more-or-less informed experimentation, followed by two years of actually having had proper Indian cookery lessons, I think I’ve about got it right.


Serves two to four people, depending on how hungry they are

Partly boil the poatoes. (It’s good if they are firm-cooking ones that don’t go floury when boiled).

Blend the ginger, garlic, cinnamon, fenugreek seeds and coriander seeds to a paste. I add a little water and use an old electric coffee grinder. A mortar & pestle would both be more authentic and probably get a finer texture.

Heat the sunflower oil in a wok or saucepan. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they froth and sputter (this smells wonderful). Add the onions. Fry until soft. Add the garlic-ginger (etc.) paste and stir. Add the cardamoms, chillis, half the sambar powder, tamarind (or mango powder), salt and tomatoes. Stir and cook vigorously until the tomatoes are soft. Reduce the heat, add the potatoes and turmeric. Stir and simmer gently for about ten minutes. Add the chickpeas and simmer gently for about another five minutes. Add the rest of the sambar powder and half the coriander leaves, stir and simmer gently for about another five minutes. Garnish with the rest of the coriander leaves.

Serve with rice and/or chapatis and cucumber-yoghurt raitha (just finely chopped cucumber with yoghurt).

I know this weblog has the occasional Indian reader, because I’ve heard from a couple of you (Ramakrishna, sorry, I lost your email address when my laptop went sick). If anybody feels like sending me their grandmother’s absolutely authentic and wonderful recipe for aloo chana masala (or for anything else, for that matter) I will be eternally grateful.

(*) Cooking dried chickpeas is a pain. It’s almost impossible to get them tender, even if you soak them for twelve hours or more and pressure cook them. These days I mostly use tinned. 8oz is one medium sized tin.

related entries: Yoga


26th February 2004 permanent link

Walking home from work today, I noticed that the pine trees had little icicles where the snow had been thawing off the ends of the branches. But the icicles weren’t straight – they were all sticking out a few degrees. Why? I think, probably, because the branches had been bent by the weight of the snow, and then gone back up as the snow melted. The only straight icicle was hanging in space below its branch, not visibly attached. Hanging by a thread of spiderweb, presumably.

The world is full of beauty and fascination – you just need to look.

indian arts – yoga teaching

22nd February 2004 permanent link

This article in my Indian traditional arts series focuses on yoga teaching as an example of how Indian culture reveres tradition and likes to suggest things are based on ancient teachings, even if aspects of them may not actually be as ancient as they seem.

The literature on meditation and yoga philosophy definitely goes back at least 2,500 to 3,000 years – the exact dates of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Upanishads are unknown, but they are generally believed to be roughly contemporary with or (the Upanishads) earlier than the Buddha, who is believed to have lived circa 600 to 500 BC. The buddhist scriptures also make it clear that advanced meditation techniques were already understood and practiced in India at that time. There may be traces of much older evidence – there is a carving that some people believe depicts the god Shiva sitting in lotus position from the city of Harappa circa 2500 BC. Texts that recognisably describe the outward physical practices of yoga as it is generally understood today – postures and breathing exercises – are much later. The best known of them, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dates from the 15th century AD. What I am going to discuss here is just how old the particular style of yoga I study might actually be.

yoga school sign

The yoga teacher I studied with in India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, is practically a living tradition in his own right. He has been studying yoga for 75 years and teaching for over 60, having opened his own yoga school in 1942. His teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, was probably the most influential yoga teacher of modern times – at least three major yoga styles that are widely practiced throughout the world today are his direct lineage.

Pattabhi Jois
Pattabhi Jois

The “official” story goes that the form of yoga that Pattabhi Jois teaches was rediscovered by Krishnamacharya in an ancient manuscript written on palm leaves, the Yoga Korunta. The manuscript was subsequently destroyed (eaten by ants) and only Krishnamacharya’s notes remain. Now, it isn’t inherently implausible that such a document could have existed. Apparently lots of old Indian manuscripts are on dried palm leaves, and there are many uncatalogued private collections of them housed in very poor conditions, deteriorating and being lost all the time. (Hopefully India will become a rich country in time for some serious efforts to save this part of its heritage). See the following message board posting from a student of Pattabhi Jois who has clearly spent more time in libraries in India than I have:

So many yoga students on this board are quick to celebrate Sri T. Krisnamacaryas' accomplishments and references while dismissing and criticizing those of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois. Those of you who fall into the above category have probably never visited a library in India and seen the deplorable conditions where stacks of palm leaf texts crumble upon touch, already laced with holes from hungry insects. You probably don't know that 100s upon 100s of precious palm leaf texts lie in disrepair and will never be translated into English let alone transcribed for modern day preservation in their original languages. Actually many poor and desperate Brahmin families burn these texts for cooking fuel as they no longer understand their inherent worth. Knowledgable pandits of the caliber of Sri T. Krisnamacarya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois are ever rarer. The education system that taught these men to memorize for a lifetime thousands of slokas through repetition, no longer exists. The forefathers and community temples that taught them 100s of pujas with particulars of offerings, homas and mantras are also becoming extinct in an enthusiasm to leave off traditions in favor of "modern" pursuits.
Those of you that feel you are in a postion to reproach Guruji (LOL) and his reference to the Yoga Korunta probably don't know the following: Sri T. Krisnamacarya cites Yoga Korunta as a reference in two of his books, Yogasana and Yoga Makaranda. The Mysore Maharaja's library, that published these two books of Krisnamacaryas, lists Yoga Korunta among its vast collection.

Another yoga student whose opinions I respect very highly takes a different view:

Warning: the following remarks are likely to offend some Ashtanga devotees.

It's fairly clear to me that there never was a manuscript that laid out the Ashtanga system. If there was a Yoga Korunta (which I tend to doubt) then it didn't set forth the system of postures in any form close to the way they have been practiced. Essentially, Krishnamacharya (K) made up the sytem himself. Here's why:

  1. Early treatises on classical yoga deal very little with asana. The use of asana beyond a few seated postures appears to have been a development of the Tantric movement, which took hold in India from about 500 AD – well after any likely date of Patanjali. The earliest texts dealing with asanas beyond seated postures date from the 1100-1300's AD. The use of large numbers of postures seems to date from the 1700's and later, when folks became interested in the therapeutic aspects of asanas. Therefore an extensive asana system such as that of Ashtanga is not likely to date from Patanjali's time.
  2. The elements of the current Ashtanga system can be found, in disparate form, in manuscripts available to K when he was teaching at the Mysore palace earlier in the twentieth century. The author of "The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace" investigates some of these documents: one, dating from the 1800's, has an extensive list of asanas with a nomenclature similar to that of the K schools (Iyengar, Vinoyoga, Jois). Also, there is a gymnastics text, again dating from the 1800's, that illustrates several excercises performed by Indian wrestlers. These resemble the vinyasa of the Ashtanga system. It is plausible, therefore, that K could have derived the Ashtanga by hybridizing yoga and gymnastics practices from texts that were available to him.
  3. The Yoga Korunta is not the only no-longer-extant manuscript from which K claimed to have derived a system of yoga. In "Health, Healing and Beyond", K's biography written by his son TKV Desikachar, K tells how he was once visiting a temple near the birthplace of Nathamuni, a ninth century sage and reputed ancestor of K. During this visit, K says he went into a trance and had a portion of the the Yoga Rahasya (a now-lost text ascribed to Nathamuni) dictated to him. The "dictated" portion includes many of the element so the viniyoga school, including yoga for health, yoga for pregnant women (no early yoga text envisages women practitioners), etc. The Yoga Korunta alone is a bit much to take – TWO systems of yoga based on two separate "discoveries" of lost texts is simply not credible.

K was a very creative yogi who was working from a cultural situation in which you don't take credit for your own discoveries but instead try to ascribe them to a teacher or a tradition, so I think humility was his motive for inventing these two texts (or at least inventing the content of these texts). I don't hold any grudge against K for doing this, but respect for K, Jois, and the Ashtanga system should not cause us to jettison our critical faculties.

On the subject of this second (alleged) source text, the Yoga Rahasya, here is a quote from another Indian yoga teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, who studied with Krishnamacharya for many years:

During the early years, Sri Krisnamacarya used to quote often from the Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni, many of which quotes I noted down. For instance, he quoted the following passage to emphasize the importance of finding means for contraception and family planning (mita santana). This sloka, Pasasanam yoganidra garbhapindanca bhadrakam | Matsyendrasanakhyete, sarva garbha nirodhakah, mentions the asanas (noose posture, yogic reclining posture, fetus posture, auspicious posture, kingfish posture) that prevent conception. But when I aked him where the text was available, he said with a chuckle that it used to be available at Sarabhoji Maharaja of Tanjore and that he had seen the text, which was written on palm leaves and kept in an ivory box. He even suggested that I write to the Sarasvati Mahal library in Tanjore and ask for a copy. I did write to them, and received a reply that no such text existed. I subsequently learned from a Vaisnavite friend that Nathamuni had intended to transmit the knowledge of Yoga, the Yoga Rahasya (Secret of Yoga), to his grandson, but he passed away before he could do so. I sort of figured out that Yoga Rahasya was the work of my own guru, inspired by the upasana (devotion) to Nathamuni. The work contained several of the instructions Sri Krisnamacarya used to give while teaching yoga. But there were variations in the same slokas, when he quoted them on different occasions, which is further evidence that Yoga Rahasya may have been the masterpiece of my own guru, inspired by tradition and devotion.

I personally don’t really believe in the Yoga Korunta, although I also wouldn’t fall over in amazement if somebody did conclusively prove its existence. There is a book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, that describes a (different) text the author found in the Mysore Palace archives, describing a nineteenth century synthesis of native yoga and martial arts traditions with British gymnastic training. The author, Norman Sjoman, believes that something like this – possibly even this actual text – was an important influence on Krishnamacharya’s teaching.

Attitudes to this question vary widely among yoga teachers; even among senior Indian yoga teachers who are direct students of Krishnamacharya, of whom I have studied with two and read books by three more. Of these:

If what Krishnamacharya was actually doing was putting together his own synthesis, based on classical sources combined with his own vast knowledge and experience, then why not say so? Why feel the need to invent a fairy story about an ancient manuscript “eaten by ants”? I agree with the assessment I quoted above, that he was “working from a cultural situation in which you don't take credit for your own discoveries but instead try to ascribe them to a teacher or a tradition, so I think humility was his motive”. I wonder if there might also be some element of self-mythologisation going on; if he might have seen himself as to some extent divinely inspired and, in fact, being in some spiritual sense actually the recipient rather than the author of texts that came into his head and that he wrote down?

The whole thing is an interesting contrast with the Japanese attitude to their martial arts. I studied karate for a few years when I was younger. One thing I noticed was that nobody had any problem with acknowledging that most Japanese martial arts as they are currently practiced were invented by great teachers around the turn of the last century – probably the most famous being Mr Uyeshiba, the inventor of Aikido – and with respecting these teachers as people who were drawing on ancient bushido traditions, but also innovating to produce their own new synthesis within that framework. Which I think is probably what Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were also up to in the 1930s, but the Indian way (*) is to pretend that nobody is doing anything new and it’s all ancient. This also plays well with suggestible New Age western students who want to fantasise about “ancient secrets of the pyramids” and suchlike nonsense. I prefer the Japanese way.

All this is of very marginal relevance to actually practicing yoga.

(*) in this context although, interestingly, not with classical music.

related entries: Yoga

brian micklethwait

22nd February 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait is on a roll with his two latest pieces. The first one is on twentieth century art as a conscious rebellion by artists against concepts like meaning and beauty . I’m not sure I wholly agree with this – I think there are other important reasons why western Art-With-A-Capital-A vanished up its own backside to the extent that it did – but it’s certainly an interesting and well written piece. And then there’s this excellent take-down of some stupid and pointless new opera, which ends with this gem:

If the people who say they like this nonsense had to pay for all of it, it would surely cease at once.

… which is basically the same point Stephen Bayley was making in the piece I quoted a few days ago.

Linking to other people’s entries, however good, is really just a way of procrastinating until I finally manage to finish something substantial of my own, such as the piece on yoga teaching that I’m struggling with. I always struggle with writing about things that really matter to me, and particularly with weblogging about yoga, because I think in some ways weblogging and practicing yoga are fundamentally incompatible actiivites. On which subject I have a very unfinished draft posting that I stuggle with from time to time. Maybe one day.

related entries: Music

indian arts – cookery

22nd February 2004 permanent link

Not actually part of my sort-of-ongoing Indian traditional arts series (*), just a pointer to some really excellent and authentic south Indian vegetarian recipes that have recently appeared on the yoga is youth weblog.

The recipes are from the Three Sisters in Mysore - three utterly charming brahmin sisters who run a café frequented by yoga students. I used to go there almost every day when I was in Mysore, so I know the sisters are truly excellent cooks, but at the time I didn’t actually get to write down any of their recipes. I saw these on the web on Friday, and immediately went shopping and made some of them for Maria’s birthday party yesterday – which is taking quite a big risk, using recipes I have never made before for an important party. They were marvellous.

Key cookery lesson here – if you want to taste spices in your food, don’t muck about. Note that the standard units in these recipes are “handfuls” and “tablespoons”. Just say no to “pinches” and “teaspoons”.

Oh, and a note regarding coconut, which is important and much used in South Indian cookery (anybody would think they just grow on trees or something). If you can’t easily get whole coconuts or don’t have a coconut grater – a highly specialised scary-looking device found in every Indian kitchen – don’t use dessicated coconut sold for baking. It is almost always sweetened. Instead get dried coconut flakes from a wholefood shop. These aren’t sweetened.

(*) Part two of which, on yoga teaching, I have been messing about with in draft form for the past week. Must get my finger out and finish it.

related entries: Yoga

photography quotes

19th February 2004 permanent link

at the end of the day, the photographer must also be a thief, inevitably
Italian photojournalist Mario Mazziol , quoted by Frank Van Riper

related entries: Photography

photography in india

19th February 2004 permanent link

sacred cow sadhu

I have written a big article on photography in Southern India - shooting locations, travel and gear practicalities and general musings on Alan’s philosophy of travel photography. (Warning – lots of big images, will be slow for readers with dial-up connections)

I actually wrote the article a year ago and have been trying to get it published on a couple of major photography websites, but without success, so here it is anyway

related entries: Photography

a plea for help

17th February 2004 permanent link

I also noticed while I was away, on my Dad’s PC, that this weblog is illegible in Internet Explorer 5.5 on Windows 98. It seems to display the first half of the text and then lay the second half over the top of it. I assume this is something to do with both IE’s and my general inability to do CSS properly, but I have no idea exactly what the problem might be and I have no easy access to an IE5 / Win 98 test environment to investigate. Any ideas or insights welcome.

related entries: Programming

art and body snatching

17th February 2004 permanent link

I notice that while I was away having, among other things, dinner in London with Michael Jennings, Brian Micklethwait has been busy. Good. Plenty of interesting-looking stuff to catch up on over the next few days.

I suspect Brian probably doesn’t read the Independent on Sunday; but if he did, I suspect he would have liked the arts column by Stephen Bayley that starts:

The vitality and relevance of any activity, I sometimes think, may be most accurately measured by the need any government feels to establish a quango for its encouragement. As history’s crisis arrives, an official body-snatcher comes limping and shuffling into the mortuary to steal the corpse and inject it with the artificial life of taxpayers’ funds.

… which I also agree with. It doesn’t appear to be up on the Independent’s website yet.

carry on in german

11th February 2004 permanent link

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Surely nobody would ever have gone to the trouble and expense of dubbing a Carry On film into German, and furthermore then actually show it on TV in the twenty-first century. (I expect only British readers to have the faintest idea what I’m talking about here). But there it was: Carry on Cleo, aka Ist ja irre: Anthony und Cleopatra(*)(**). I told Maria she simply had to see a few minutes of it before we went to bed – and ended up going to bed on my own half an hour later. She loved it. Carry On films appeal to the German and Russian sense of humour, it would seem.

That’s it for weblogging for another week or so – we’re off to England tomorrow to visit my parents for a few days, and very much looking forward to leaving the baby with grandma and grandpa and having a day out in London. (Hopefully my dad will also have plenty of Carry On films on video).

(*) German translations of English film and book titles are almost always really bad – a subject which may be worth a weblog posting in its own right one day.

(**) Featuring Amanda Barrie, later better known as Alma in Coronation Street, as Cleopatra. I wish to make it clear that I never watched Coronation Street, but hypothetically supposing I did, my friends might also hypothetically have taken the p*ss out of me for thinking Alma was rather attractive for an older woman. Well ha. They should have seen her when she was young and dressed only in ass’s milk.

photography quotes

11th February 2004 permanent link

The Truth Is
You have too many cameras and you don’t take enough photographs.
Kyle Cassidy

I have seven cameras, and haven’t taken a photograph since New Year’s Day.

It’s just seeing - at least the photography I care about. You either see or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Anyone can learn how to develop
Elliott Erwitt, courtesy of

Technical perfection is not the goal of photography: seeing life is
Ellis Vener on

related entries: Photography

indo-european languages update

11th February 2004 permanent link

In December I wrote about a paper on the origin of the Indo-European languages by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The paper used statistical techniques derived from evolutionary biology and applied them to Indo-European vocabulary to come up with a date for proto-Indo-European that was about two thousand years older than linguists generally believe. And linguists were, shall we say, sceptical.

It looks as though Russell Gray, to his great credit, is serious about explaining and defending what he has done. He now has the full text [pdf] of the original paper up on his website (must read it and see if I understand any of it!), together with a response [Word document] to criticims of the paper by Larry Trask, a leading historical linguist. Gray says he and Atkinson are preparing a more detailed (book chapter) explanation of their method.

Another observation regarding linguists’ responses to the original paper – I re-read the abstract in the course of some email correspondence on the subject with Michael Jennings, and it does not say that Gray & Atkinson believe anything in their findings points towards Anatolia – just that their date ties in with others (i.e. Renfrew?) who have suggested an Anatolian origin in the same timeframe.

I am alarmed to see that my weblog entry from December is the number two hit for a google search for “gray atkinson indo european”. (At least the abstract of the original paper is number one). Goodness knows what anybody who actually knows anything about this stuff (i.e. actual real linguists or statisticians) would think about that.

Update: linguists are still sceptical - here is the latest discussion on sci.lang.

related entries: Yoga Language

my laptop is broken

3rd February 2004 permanent link

Apple’s software is lovely. Unfortunately their hardware seems to be utter crap – their low end laptops at any rate.

I have had my iBook for 18 months. The battery died at 8 months, and was replaced under warranty. I should have realised all was not well at the point and taken out the extended warranty, but didn’t. Big mistake. Now the screen has died – out of warranty.

It seems the particular model I have has no less than two well known and common screen faults. Apple has issued a recall for one of them, but I suspect mine has the other one. If it is what I think it is, it’s conceptually quite simple – blatantly obvious poor design in the way the power cable for the backlight is routed through the screen hinge, apparently. This guy describes how to fix it, but it sounds as though taking iBooks apart is not for the clumsy or faint of heart. I think I’ll see what my local Apple repair centre has to say about it first.

Meanwhile, since weblog writing for me is something that happens on the laptop on the train to & from work, expect not much here for a couple of weeks – followed, quite possibly, by a spate of book reviews.

related entries: Mac


2nd February 2004 permanent link

I watched Amadeus on DVD at the weekend. I haven't seen it for years, and had forgotten just how good it is – an utterly flawless masterpiece. However, following the lesson in optimism I received from Brian and Bruce last week, I will not assume that because Amadeus is an utterly flawless masterpiece and was made twenty years ago, therefore no other utterly flawless cinematic materpieces have been made in the intervening twenty years or ever will be again.

Maria also pointed out how much better it is watching films on DVD than on video. She says she always found the picture quality of video - and, particularly for this sort of the film, the sound quality - so bad that it really wasn’t worth bothering.

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