alan little’s weblog archive for july 2004


27th July 2004 permanent link

Not much time or inclination to write anything at the moment. Having a Condition Red project at work, and a baby (*) with measles, will do that for you. Normal service will be resumed at an unspecified future date.

(*) I intended to stop referring to my son as a “baby” after his first birthday. But when he has measles, he is my baby. (In related news: some time after my fortieth birthday I asked my mother if she had any plans to stop referring to me as “her boy”. She said she didn’t.)

schubert, iggy

27th July 2004 permanent link

A colleague has been listening to and enjoying my CD of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s (fantastic) 1951 recording of Schubert’s 9th Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. This colleague has a strong interest in music but doesn’t know much about classical music – and therefore shares the common misconception that “classical” music has always been classical, staid and respectable.

So he was surprised when he asked me when Schubert lived, and I said he died in 1828 at an early age, probably from syphilis that he picked up whilst playing piano in brothels (well, not actually whilst playing piano) and was, as I put it, “the Iggy Pop of 1820s Vienna”. Which, on reflection, is not such a good analogy given that Iggy survived his wild years. More like the Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix of 1820s Vienna.

related entries: Music

ego surfing

23rd July 2004 permanent link

I have a bookmark for technorati’s page of people who have linked to me, but I don’t look at it all that often. Honest. However, today I’m pleased – not to mention a little puzzled - to see that The European Weblog Review regards me as among “the best of the English-speaking blogosphere on the European Continent”.

Puzzled, because while I cannot deny that I am a Brit living on the European Continent, I hardly ever write explicitly about that experience. They seem to be interested in EU-political matters and, while I do have opinions on that, I don’t regard them as worth writing about. (Short version: European free trade zone and open borders - excellent. Europe run by corrupt unelected bureaucrats in Brussels - appalling). Nor do I write much, here, about German culture from a British perspective. That happens more in the shadow blog that would exist if I pieced together my contributions to other peoples’ comment sections.

But if they think their readers might be interested in obscure meanderings about music and yoga that happen to be written by a Brit who recently bought Baby’s First Lederhosen for his one year old son, I’m very happy to oblige.

Token expat fact that would shock, shock the more puritan wing of American ashtanga yogis: the Bavarian thing I would miss most if I left would be the beer.

yoga therapy

22nd July 2004 permanent link

Michael Smith emails me, in response to my response to his pointer to bindu magazine, with links to some more interesting yoga science articles. Thanks very much Michael.

The articles are by Dr. Timothy McCall, who apparently is medical editor of Yoga Journal, but nobody’s perfect. He also wrote the foreword to David Coulter’s marvellous book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, which inclines me more in his favour.

And one of the articles is excellent. In Western Science vs. Eastern Wisdom he describes his visits to yoga therapy researchers in India, talks about the research they are doing and raises a number of serious issues. Probably the most serious of these is that medical science relies on repeatable studies of standardised treatment practices, whereas all good yoga therapists insist that treatments must be customised for the individual patient. Some yoga institutes are conducting standardised trials in the interests of gaining recognition from medical researchers - but is what they are doing then proper yoga therapy?

The irony is that if standardization does lower the quality of therapeutics, we might end up amassing the most scientific support for methods that are not the best yoga has to offer. This is no trivial matter, since the results of studies can influence which institutions get funding and, someday perhaps, which teachers get licensed or reimbursed by insurance companies.

I would call this more than an “irony”. It raises the same question I’m addressing in my sporadically-ongoing series of essays on yoga teacher qualifications: who is actually qualified to train and certify yoga teachers (or therapists) anyway? Answer: not governments or insurance companies, and especially not if it means some kind of bastardised, watered-down subset of practices ends up getting quasi-officially sanctioned as “yoga”.

Another concern that McCall raises:

Some view this “medicalization” of yoga as a problem; they worry that doing yoga for a bodily affliction trivializes this great spiritual tradition. But this didn’t concern the masters that I had met on my journey. “Everyone comes to yoga because of some kind of suffering,” says N.V. Raghuram, a senior teacher at Prashanti. In other words, it doesn’t matter what brings a person to yoga, a bum hip or a desire to find God: Duhkha is duhkha.

I am probably one of the people who view “medicalization” of yoga as a problem. I have absolutely nothing against borrowing yoga techniques as a form of physical therapy. I’m sure it can be very effective. I would question whether it is yoga. Certainly people whose physical suffering is relieved by "yoga therapy" might find that their spiritual well being is enhanced as a result. I can well imagine that if I had suffered from chronic backache and yoga therapy relieved it, it would reduce the fluctuations of my mind. It’s also definitely true that some percentage of people who start practicing yoga for any reason - backache, getting fit, meeting babes - will realise that there is more to it than that and become serious about their practice. For me it was reasons (2) and (3). So I think McCall’s point here is ok to a degree: yoga therapy is a good thing in itself and possibly also a way in to serious yoga practice for some people; but there is a danger of people confusing physical benefits with the real aims of yoga.

Another problem of current scientific yoga research: looking under the lamppost syndrome. It’s easier to measure maximum oxygen uptake or the straightness of somebody’s spine than their level of enlightenment. “Unfortunately, there’s no ‘spirituogram’ that can quantify this aspect of yoga, so science does not look there much”, says McCall. I think there is, actually, or could be. It’s just harder and more expensive than measuring VO2 Max. I personally believe that mystical states of enlightenment must correspond to [may be no more than] measurable, detectable states of brain activity that some very dedicated practitioners of things like yoga or buddhist meditation can learn to induce. The brain scans of yoga practitioners that bindu magazine wrote about, or of Tibetan buddhist monks that I read about elsewhere, would be one (early, crude, prototype) form of the “spirituogram”. There must also be tests/measures of general psychological wellbeing that I think would correlate with any reasonable definition of "enlightenment". Whether you could get randomised volunteers for a study would be a big question, though. Getting twenty randomly-selected soldiers to do hatha yoga instead of their normal PT for an hour a day for a few months is feasible. Getting twenty randomly-selected civilians to go into a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and meditate for several years isn’t. But there’s a difference between "not easy to measure" and "not measurable".

This all reminds me of a fascinating interview I once read in Yoga International magazine with a guy called Robin Monro. Monro was a high-flying research biologist in the 1960s - worked with Francis Crick of Crick & Watson fame. He also studied yoga with BKS Iyengar. “In 1969 he left research in molecular biology in order to dedicate the second half of his career to philosophical and ethical problems associated with science … In 1980 he decided to go in for research into forms of medicine which were largely unrecognised by modern medicine but which were in his own experience effective ... and founded the Yoga Biomedical Trust”. Sounds like an interesting character – unfortunately Yoga International magazine’s website (doesn’t work properly in Mozilla and ...) apparently either doesn’t have online archives, or only has them for subscribers.

Bonus link: this apposite quote from John Perry Barlow:

I’m realizing that one of the obstacles to an integrated model for Western Medicine, such as they are using me to develop, is that the better reductionism gets at yielding extremely granular insight into the parts, the harder it becomes to assemble them into a whole.

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to ...

16th July 2004 permanent link

Friday night, and Alan’s Friday night excitement consists of babysitting while Maria goes on a Girls’ Night Out. I get the baby to bed early and celebrate by listening to Yehuda Hanani’s marvellous recording of the Bach Cello Suites while I’m doing the dishes. And I find myself thinking “this sounds bloody good”: meaning, not the playing which already know is good, but the sound quality of the CD-burned-from-mp3. I had only listened on cheap headphones on the computer before having just downloaded the thing from emusic [1] – now I’m listening to it on my cheap'n'cheerful but decent kitchen stereo [2] and thinking I really wouldn’t notice it wasn’t an original CD if I didn’t already know.

Wouldn’t I? Time for a test.

Methodology: very scientific:

  1. Pick something I would normally want to listen anyway, and that I already have on mp3 from emusic and also on CD. I liked the mp3 a lot but thought a CD must sound even better, and it was cheap, so I bought it. The Hungarian Quartet performing Haydn’s String Quartet opus 64 no. 5, “The Lark”.
  2. Take an uncompressed version copied from the CD, make two compressed copies of it using AAC at 128 kbps and 320 kbps.
  3. Take the mp3 copy from emusic. Emusic say they use Lame 3.92 to produce their variable bit rate files. From what little I know of these things, this is an up to date version of reputedly the best encoder. Average bit rate for the movements of the quartet is around the high 180s.
  4. Put the four versions of the first movement into a playlist, hide the bitrate column and shuffle.
  5. Burn to a CD and listen using the best available equipment [3].
  6. Come to the following conclusions:

This is not a masterpiece of the recording engineer’s art. The CD original doesn’t sound that great when listened to closely. Nevertheless it’s clearly better than the compressed versions.

The 128 kbps AAC is a clear loser. Generally flat-sounding. Treble is thin & shrill, everything else muted. AAC “as good as mp3 at the next bitrate up”, as it is generally reputed to be, seems not to be the case here. [4]

The 320 kbps AAC and the mp3 (variable bit rate, average 185 kbps) are hard to rank relative to one another. Both have a rounder, fuller sound than the 128 AAC, but both sound somewhat flat and dull compared to the CD original. If pushed I think I would pick the mp3.

What I should do in the interests of more scientificness is repeat with the CD player on random and see if I get the same results again. Which I might one day if I ever have the time & inclination. Also repeat with something that’s actually a good recording in the first place.

[1] One of quite a number of very good pieces of classical music I’ve picked up on emusic. Coming Soon: Alan’s emusic classical gems.

[2] A portable CD player from iRiver, feeding a NAD 310 amp and Mission 731 Pro speakers. The CD player about €100 from amazon, the speakers the same from ebay, the amp years old and I can’t remember what I paid for it, but now also available for about €100 or less on ebay. And voilà – a very decent sounding stereo system (as long as you don’t want loud) for about 300 bucks plus a few bits of cable.

[3] Bottom of the range Cambridge Audio CD player, Marantz PM-80 amp & Sennheiser 580 headphones.

[4] I’m well aware that 128 kbps from iTunes might not be the best AAC can do, even at that bitrate. I read somewhere that iTunes doesn’t use the best possible encoder settings, and that the 18 kbps files from Apple’s music store are sourced from higher quality originals than CDs. If at some point I actually manage to find something interesting in Apple’s music store that I also have on CD, in the interests of science I shall buy a track or two and do another comparison.

related entries: Music

more vedic

13th July 2004 permanent link

I’ve been reading a 1999 paper by Michael Witzel, Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages, which comes to some very interesting conclusions about what languages were spoken, when and where in northern India in Vedic times. I have no idea what, if any, reaction to this paper there might have been from linguists; but Witzel is a serious historical linguist, not a biologist with some stats software and a bright idea, so I assume his ideas are at least worth taking seriously.

Witzel believes the vedic scriptures, because of their unbroken tradition of precise oral transmission as sacred texts, are the closest thing we will ever have to a tape recording of an ancient language, far better than any written evidence. Also that even within the earliest group of texts, the Rg Vedas, it is possible to clearly identify a sequence of composition in at least three different periods that also appear to have originated in different areas and with different substrate languages (*).

Very broad-brush summary:

Substrate language = a language that has died out in an area, but left traces in the form of borrowed vocabulary in the language(s) that replaced it.

related entries: Yoga

yoga for squaddies?

11th July 2004 permanent link

A search on “subject:yoga” in the Indian Journal of Medical Research online archive in fact comes up with only one result, namely this study of a group of soldiers by the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology & Allied Sciences:

One group (yoga, n=17) practiced Hatha yogic exercises for 1 h every morning (6 days in a week) for six months. The other group (PT, n=11) underwent conventional physical exercise training during the same period. Both groups participated daily in different games for 1 h in the afternoon. In the 7th month, tests for maximal oxygen consumption (VO2Max) and PE were repeated on both groups of subjects.

Results: Absolute value of VO2Max increased significantly (P<0.05) in the yoga group after 6 months of training. The PE score after maximal exercise decreased significantly (P< 0.001) in the yoga group after 6 months but the PT group showed no change.

Interpretation & conclusion: The practice of Hatha yogic exercises along with games helps to improve aerobic capacity like the practice of conventional exercises (PT) along with games. The yoga group performed better than the PT group in terms of lower PE after exhaustive exercise.

Interesting. I do rather doubt, though, that producing superfit soldiers is really what Patanjali had in mind. Not to mention that this sort of thing does throw into question the standing of Indians to criticise western yoga students for an “overly materialistic” attitude if this is what their own researchers get up to.

OK, tongue somewhat in cheek - I do believe this sort of research is interesting and worthwhile, as long as people don't confuse it with what yoga practice is actually about.

related entries: Yoga

yoga science

11th July 2004 permanent link

Michael Smith points to bindu, a quite interesting Scandinavian (in English) yoga magazine that has some reports on scientific research into yoga and meditation. Unfortunately, I find the level of detail and follow up references really isn’t enough to find out if there really is much substance to some of the potentially interesting things they are saying.

They have an article on the health benefits of lotus position, and quote the results of a 1975 study by an Indian researcher, Dr. Salgar, which found that:

Under a heavy load which demanded great muscular strength, the physical fitness training group showed the best results. However, under normal strain, the Lotus group surpassed the physical fitness group. Even though there had been no actual muscle growth, the Lotus pose people were better able to make efficient use of their strength. The control group showed no changes whatsoever.

With her findings, Professor Salgar was able to show that merely sitting in the Lotus pose has a positive influence on the metabolism and on the overall body fitness, which was significantly improved.

Which I find very interesting; also very frustrating because they provide no link and no reference for the study they are quoting. I’m immediately suspicious when I read something that appears to be telling me exactly what I want to hear – I want some more basis for assessing whether this result is really real than somebody’s third hand paraphrase of something they once read.

Fortunately, google is my friend and quickly comes up with a list of research papers on Psychophysiological Effects of Yoga with a reference to Salgar’s paper in the Indian Journal of Medical Research[1], along with a whole pile of other interesting-looking stuff. But how hard would it have been for bindu to just add one little footnote to their article?

Now, where can I get hold of the archives of the Indian Journal of Medical Research? Ah, here, but apparently not as far back as 1975.

Bindu has another piece on the brain’s activity during Yoga Nidra, showing completely different patterns in PET scans of brain activity between yogic relaxation and normal waking consciousness. Quite interesting, but just showing two scans begs a whole lot of questions: what about other forms of yoga or meditation practice? What about sleep? They also say “Researchers have for the first time succeeded in taking pictures of the brain during a meditative deep-relaxation” (my emphasis) - this may or may not be correct depending on when the study they are quoting was done, which they don’t tell us. I have read about another study of advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators that was looking at something similar.

If I’m sounding carping, negative and un-ahimsic here, it’s because of frustration. I find this kind of serious research into whether and how yoga really works very interesting, but I want more than one-page gee wow articles that don’t offer me any way of going further if I find I’m interested in what they have to say. So thank you, Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School, for your worth efforts producing bindu – just a few more links & references, please.

[1] Salgar, D.C., V.S. Bisen, and M.J Jinturkar. Effect of padmasana, a yogic exercise, on muscular efficiency. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1975, 63:768ff (just so’s I’m not guilty of the same sin I’m accusing other people of)

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to ...

11th July 2004 permanent link

Regular readers (?) will know that I’m a huge fan of the Borodin Quartet, both in its pre-1975 incarnation led by Rostislav Dubinsky, and the later version led by Mikhail Kopelman that people generally seem to think is markedly inferior. I disagree, I’ve heard some marvellous recordings by Borodin II.

They don’t include the one I’m listening to at the moment, though. Yesterday I bought a cheap boxed set of their late ’80s recordings of half the Beethoven string quartets. I knew these didn’t have a great reputation, but at €16 for 4 CDs I thought I might be pleasantly surprised. Not particularly. I found myself completely agreeing with the general consensus on “These performances are not actively bad, but neither do they show the Borodin at its peak”. Quite. It’s perfectly listenable-to, but it doesn’t have the level of inspiration you know these people are capable of.

I’m not impressed by the sound quality either. Too boomy and resonant for my taste. I don’t think this is to do with any techical limitations of 1980s digital recording; more likely Virgin’s engineers just have different views from me on what chamber music should sound like.

No great loss, though. In the Bad Old Days when these cost the equivalent of over €20 per CD in Britain I would never have considered buying them. At the current price I can afford to take a punt on them being better than their reputation. I’ll probably listen to them a couple of times, and then recoup most of my €16 on ebay if I find they don’t grow on me.

related entries: Music

using my pictures

3rd July 2004 permanent link

In the last couple of days I’ve been surprised to see my pictures in places I didn’t know they were being used. This one, of my yoga teacher Bettina:

Bettina Anner

… was being used to illustrate a brochure for course she’s teaching in the summer. And of course I would have said yes immediately if the guy organising the course had asked me. I’m a little peeved that he just took it without asking; he’s also shooting himself in the foot by using a low-res web image in a printed brochure when I would gladly have given him a higher resolution copy for printing.

The other was when I noticed in my referer log that one of my Indian street photos was being requested frequently from the same website. I looked and sure enough, the guy is using my picture, linked from my server, as the background for his home page. I’m pleased that he likes my picture, but not so pleased that I’m willing to contribute to his bandwidth bill. And he, too, might well be shooting himself in the foot by making himself dependent on’s uptime over the next week or two.

In general, I’m delighted if people like my pictures so much that they want to use them. That’s what I originally started for: I wanted people to see my pictures and hopefully like them. I do find it rude, though, when people use them (and my bandwidth) without asking. It’s not as if I don’t have copyright notices and mailto: links all over my site.

People wanting to to use my pictures for non-commercial purposes are generally welcome to do so (and by posting them on the web, I’ve made it impossible for me to stop them anyway). But I would appreciate it if you have the good manners to:


related entries: Photography

really moving this time

3rd July 2004 permanent link

I mentioned ages ago that I was planning to move to a new linux server. I still haven’t done it - I’ve been using the linux box for some development projects and private stuff, but I was too afraid of my utter linux admin ignorance to actually switch my public website over.

Not any more. I’ve finally had it with my current hosting provider’s ludicrously tight disk space limit, their overenthusiastic spam filtering software, the embarrassment of being on a Windows server and the wastefulness of paying for two lots of hosting.

I have a sysadmin friend who is going to tell me how not to do anything too gratuitously stupid. Despite which, if goes off the air for indefinite lengths of time over the next few days, and/or I don’t have time to write anything, you know why. I’m busy learning to be a unix sysadmin - quickly.

happy birthday guruji

2nd July 2004 permanent link


Yoga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was born on the July full moon, 1915. He has been practicing and studying yoga since his teens, and teaching since the 1930s. If I have a quarter of the energy and enthusiasm he has when I’m 89 I will be a very happy man. Happy birthday Guruji.

related entries: Yoga

all text and images © 2003–2008

< june 2004 august 2004 >