alan little’s weblog archive for october 2004

perfect day?

31st October 2004 permanent link

You may be living in paradise if … (a Sunday Family Life Vignette)

You take your seventeen month old son to the zoo for the first time. You wonder if he will actually notice the animals or understand that there’s anything unusual about them. After he has gone into raptures over the Prezwalski’s horses and the Siberian tigers, and his mother is looking on the map for the bears, you stop worrying about this and start wondering instead if the whole trip is turning out to be rather more Russian-themed than you were expecting. (You are just jealous because you come from the country with the most boring fauna in the world. No toddler would go into raptures on a British-wildlife-themed zoo visit). There aren’t any mammoths so we have to make do with elephants. It’s pouring with rain the whole time but nobody cares.

You get home from the zoo and phone your sister. She sounds genuinely delighted with her birthday present, which you actually remembered to post on time this year.

Worn out by all the exciting Russian wildlife, your son has a nice long early afternoon nap, during which you get to do a nice long yoga practice.

After your son wakes up, you head off at four o’clock to a party for two friends who also have birthdays this week. Parties tend to start early when lots of your friends have babies and small children, which is good because …

You still have time to go to a concert afterwards.

classical music

31st October 2004 permanent link

Further thoughts on Indian classical music, inspired by going to hear Pandit Shiva Kmar Sharma this evening.

The boundaries of what Indians call “classical music” seem to be much more fluid than in the west. This seems healthy to me. The first piece is a formal raga. The second piece Sharma describes as “semi-classical”. Apparently it’s a Himalayan folk tune, played in something like raga style, but it’s more melodic and the improvisation is much freer. It ends in a whirlwind of call and response riffs between Sharma’s accompanists, his son Rahul Sharma also on santoor and Vishnu Sanju Sahai on tabla. Shiva Kumar Sharma sits in the middle, holding it all together, throwing in ideas, looking with his shoulder length mop of grey curly hair for all the world like Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve also heard Hariprasad Chaurasia, the most famous classical flute player, start a concert with a formal raga and finish with folk songs and film tunes as encores.

Sharma’s instrument the santoor, say the programme notes, was an obscure Kashmiri folk instrument until Sharma started playing classical music on it in the 1950s. Just imagine – this is as if one of the most famous and respected western classical musicians in the world today played something like banjo or slide guitar. (Of course, Ry Cooder is one of the most respected serious western musicians, but because of arbitrary genre boundaries we don’t regard what he does as “classical”)

When western classical music was healthy, people played with folk tunes, improvised lots, and experimented frantically with new instruments too.

If I had a lifetime or two available to learn a musical instrument (and who knows, perhaps I might) I would learn tabla. Or electric bass.

The concert was organised by Asha for Education, a group of Indians working abroad who organise fundraising events for schools for deprived kids back home. Seems like a thoroughly worthy cause. I didn’t see any of the guys from my office. Will have to give them a hard time about that – they were out in force for Hariprasad Chaurasia last year.

related entries: Music

currently listening to …

31st October 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray has been listening to Sly’n’Robbie. Lucky him. And he’s impressed:

There’s this rhythm that’s already out there, everywhere. It’s your mother’s heartbeat that backgrounded the birth of your mind in the womb, though you don’t remember. It’s the creaking in the roots of the world tree, and the secret resonance of the inner heart of the Sun.

All the best music is about getting closer to that rhythm, and anytime you’re in a room with Sly & Robbie, you’re inside it looking out.

I, meanwhile, am going this evening to listen to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Rahul Sharma, father-and-son Indian classical musicians. I have a couple of albums by Rahul Sharma and they’re very fine. Rumour has it dad may be even better. Getting closer to that rhythm.

Lucky me.

related entries: Music


29th October 2004 permanent link

I did my bit for open source software quality today, by raising bugs against Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox. Both have – different – serious errors in the way they display Devanagari. Devanagari is the script in which Sanskrit, Hindi and several other Indian languages totalling a few hundred million native speakers are written, so this is not exactly an obscure problem. See here for details and examples, which will look different depending on what browser you’re using.

Internet Explorer 6, I discovered, displays Devanagari correctly. I’m quite surprised to see a case where Microsoft do standards compliance correctly and the open source browsers (Safari is based on an open-source core) get it wrong. Maybe Microsoft have already outsourced their browser development to India? Maybe the world needs more Indian open source developers.

NOTE: I have the highest respect for the programming skills of anybody who would even attempt to write a rendering engine for Devanagari, or any other script that builds compound characters for letter combinations. I wouldn’t like to try it. But it really should be a solved problem by now.

Why did I notice this? Because I started last night on a little project to pull together my notes & thoughts on the Yoga Sutras (योग सुत्र - or not, depending on what browser you’re using) of Patanjali and I thought it would be nice to include the original text. More on this if I ever actually get anywhere with it.

related entries: Mac Programming Language

feet of clay

29th October 2004 permanent link

My boyhood hero was a KGB spy.

Anthony Glees reveals in the Social Affairs Unit weblog that Marxist historian Christopher Hill admitted in 1985 that he had worked for the NKVD/KGB. Hill was my hero when I was studying history at university; he retired just before I left school, otherwise I would definitely have wanted to study with him. I don’t think I am or was a Bad Person because I believed some wrong things when I was younger. But I was young, idealistic and ignorant; and I now fully admit that much of what I thought in those days was terribly wrong. Hill spent a year in the Soviet Union in the 1930s so he surely must have had some clue about what it really was; and yet he, and his generation in general, never recanted.

I remember Hill’s books being very good, although I haven’t looked any of them for years. The thing that appealed to me most was his studies of religious ultra-radicals in the 1640s and 50s, particularly Gerard Winstanley and the Quaker James Naylor, and their belief in finding and following the voice of god within themselves, rejecting external authority be it the church or the state. Oliver Cromwell didn’t like these guys but (unlike Stalin) didn’t murder all that many of them. I find it interesting, looking back from my perspective of a quarter of a century later and seriously interested in yoga, that their ideas were what most appealed way back then to ignorant little marxist atheist Alan.


28th October 2004 permanent link

Mysore roofscape

Today is the third anniversary of my arrival in Mysore to study yoga with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. That was a Big Event in my life – one of the first times I had ever made a major decision to do something for myself, for my own reasons, rather than just going along with what parents & teachers expected of me or the vagaries of the job market.

It’s a shame I waited nearly forty years to start doing things like that – but many people never do, and in any case, you can only start from where you are.

It doesn’t feel like two and a half years since I got back, but then I’ve been quite busy.

related entries: Yoga

and death shall have no dominion

28th October 2004 permanent link

Steve Landsburg points out another anniversary: the poet Dylan Thomas was born 90 years ago yesterday. He was certainly someone who went his own way and made his own decisions, but some of them must have been spectacularly bad ones – he drank himself to death before he reached forty.

I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood. I don’t think I have the Collected Poems any more, because I gave my copy away years ago to a friend who had lost a loved one, and needed And Death Shall Have No Dominion:

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

bad days are good

26th October 2004 permanent link

On my way to yoga class. I don’t normally write blog entries about how well or badly the physical side of my yoga practice is going at any given moment, because I don’t see why anybody else should care. I actually shouldn’t care either. But.

When I was in India, studying yoga more intensively than I ever have before or since, I noticed that there is no obvious pattern to when practice sessions are “good” or “bad”:

November 28th 2001
Today’s practice – all lightness, air & freedom. Yesterday’s was all stiffness, pain & heaviness. Perhaps there is a reason for these things; perhaps there isn’t.

Last week on my way to class, I felt really up: light, fit, exhilarated. Certain I was going to have a “good” practice. And I did – I was strong, flexible, went further, more easily into many positions than I normally can. On the way to class, though, I almost wrote a blog entry about how even if that did happen, it didn’t mean anything and wasn’t something I should get attached to or start to expect.

Sure enough, that class marked the beginning of Stiff Week, in which every subsequent yoga practice felt as if my muscles had been taken out and replaced with little bags of aching cement. (Does cement ache? And how you spell “acheing”? Questions, questions)

And this is important: the “bad” days are the good ones. They’re the ones where you’re learning the most, being forced to confront your areas of difficulty, having your belief in yourself as some kind of mega-yogi knocked down a notch or two. The “good” days, if you’re not careful, can be dangerous – revelling in siddhis, stroking your ego instead of learning to control it, getting attached to being able to achieve the outward appearance of a certain level of practice. All of which are not yoga.

So it’s just as well those days don’t happen too often. Meanwhile, on the days when it’s hard, you just carry on and do your practice anyway.

And this week? Let’s see.

Meanwhile here’s a gratuitous picture of me on a “good” practice day, performing what would be a moderately impressive physical yoga feat if it weren’t for the distinctly non-serene facial expression.

Marichyasana D

related entries: Yoga

david williams

26th October 2004 permanent link

the ultimate goal of Yoga is not to increase flexibility and strength. Increased flexibility and strength are simply the natural results and benefits of daily practice. While additional flexibility and strength are important and apparent benefits of Yoga, I believe the goals of Yoga practice are self-realization and keeping oneself balanced and healthy on a daily basis.

… the greatest Yogi is the one who enjoys his or her Yoga practice the most, not the one who can achieve the ultimate pretzel position.

Anybody who wants to read real words of yoga wisdom written by a real yogi could do a lot worse than check out this open letter from David Williams. David Williams, along with his then-partner Nancy Gilgoff, was one of the very first westerners to study yoga in Mysore with Pattabhi Jois thirty years ago. I’ve never studied with him, but he’s very highly respected by everybody I’ve met who has.

through slow, steady daily practice, one can achieve greater flexibility by generating one's own internal heat to relax into positions, rather than being forced into a position. I have observed this slower, steadier method is not only healthier, but it allows one to develop greater flexibility of a more lasting nature, than the kind that is forced.

Slow progress is definitely the plan I’m following.

A guy called Greg Natola originally emailed me asking for this link, because he thought I had posted a link to it on a yoga message board years ago. I have no recollection of doing so (which doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen) so I couldn’t help him. He then went away and found it himself, and was kind enough to mail it to me. Thanks Greg.

related entries: Yoga

pumpkin soup

26th October 2004 permanent link

Alan’s Pumpkin Soup Recipe. I invented this recipe last weekend (I’m sure many, many people have invented very similar recipes before). It was great, so I wanted to write it down so I can do it again. And if I’m writing it down, why not blog it?


Serves three to five people, depending on how hungry they are. (Jack ate two bowlfuls. I love it when he likes my cooking).

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. When it is warm, add the cumin seeds. They should sputter immediately and smell great. Add the onions, garlic, carrot, potatoes and salt; stir and cover.

Peel the pumpkin. Discard the seeds or put them aside for something else; either way, not needed for this recipe. Dice the pumpkin and add to the pan.

Fry over low heat until soft (about 40 minutes to an hour), adding small dashes of water from time to time – just enough to prevent sticking or burning.

Add the yoghurt (save a bit for garnish) and puree/blend fairly coarsely – you want some texture left. Add the pumpkin seeds, and water to the desired consistency (not too much water). Simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

Serve with a dash of pumpkin seed oil and yoghurt or sour cream.

REPURPOSED: double up on the garlic, add a dash of cayenne and sour mango powder. Don’t add any more water than the bare minimum needed to prevent burning. Chill for a couple of hours before serving et voilà – quite a decent vegetarian pate.

beginner’s mind

25th October 2004 permanent link

Knifesmith Don Fogg on the state of mind necessary for a craftsman (link courtesy of Evelyn Rodriguez):

In my early attempts to gain self discipline, I had to develop an objectivity about my thoughts. I found a vantage point from which I could observe myself and as I watched my thoughts rise up into consciousness, I began to realize that many were silly, inspired by memories or fantasies, but having no relevance to the present moment and the objective I was seeking to accomplish. The mind fires continually, first this direction then that. It can develop whole stories that spin on endlessly, some like nightmares recur and follow a dreary cycle that have an enviable conclusion of depression, sadness, anger or defeat. To learn discipline, you have to disperse these thoughts, they are dreams and take you from your work. Allow the work to draw you back. Employ the mind or it will employ you.

A useful tool for centering the mind is the breath. I have heard the breath described as a silver thread that links you to the universe. If you purse your lips slightly and draw a slow deep breath, it is not hard to imagine the coolness of space and the silver light of the stars being drawn into your body. When you exhale, you imagine the energy passing through you and discharging into the ground beneath you. It has a calming and centering affect. This is ancient wisdom.

As you begin to control your mind, you realize that it is insatiable. It hungers for stimulation and will quickly divert to anything that distracts it. The modern world is a cacophony of sounds and images. We process so much information in the course of one day, an old timer would be dizzy from the effect of it, but we hunger for even more. The radio plays constantly, the TV is always on, we can not sit with out reading …

I learned this chopping firewood on volunteer work weeks in Scotland with Trees For Life. When you’re at the top of the stroke, with the axe above your head, if your clear your mind of intentions and expectations and just let the axe go, the log splits cleanly and effortlessly. If you think “right, this time I’m really going to hit it” – thud. The axe goes halfway in and sticks and you’re there for the next five minutes prising it out.

I assume – although I’ve never tried it and have no interest in doing so – that golf must be something like this. Even though many of the people doing it probably don’t think it has anything in common with yoga or meditation

This also goes back to what I was saying last week about the ability to do impressive-looking advanced yoga practices. When my feeble attempts to do these things nearly succeed, it usually catches me by surprise and seems to happen pretty much by itself. Then on the next attempt, I think “right, that was good so what was I doing that made it work? I’m going to try really hard to do it again”. So then the next attempt is hopeless. There’s the real lesson. The ability to do these things isn’t important; the state of mind you have to be able to get into in order to do them is. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Advanced yoga practitioners (I surmise, since I am not one) have learned to enter this mental state more or less at will; or at any rate to live in a way that removes some of the internal and external obstacles to it occurring.

related entries: Yoga


25th October 2004 permanent link

Sometimes Apple piss me off – their pathetic selection of overpriced boring music; their low end laptops that fall apart after only a couple of years of shaking and rattling in the Munich U-Bahn. But sometimes they really impress me.

I installed my new hard disks last night. I was expecting this to be a lengthy struggle, which would not have been good because I couldn’t start until Jack had gone to bed. (Would you open your PC and rearrange its vital moving parts with a toddler in the room only too eager to assist you?)

I had done a bit of reading up about how best to organise disks on a Mac. Macs of the model I have have two separate disk channels each capable of taking two disks; general consensus is that you want the OS on your fastest disk, and your user files on the other channel. This meant moving the original OS disk out of its original slot and installing another copy of the OS on one of the new disks. I asked on the Apple support forums if this was ok, and people said yes, it is. Still I did it with some trepidation, fully expecting an unbootable Mac and at least having to open it up again and put the old boot disk back where it came from. But no. It booted first time. It was late and I couldn’t be bothered to dig a pile of CDs out and do a fresh install on the new disk, so I did it the Lazy Man’s Way; used Mike Bombich’s excellent piece of freeware, Carbon Copy Cloner, to copy the old OS installation onto the new disk. From which the Mac then happily booted first time. Then followed Mike’s instructions for moving my Home folder off the new OS disk onto the other new disk. Which also worked first time. I can’t imagine being able to get away with anything even remotely like this on a Windows box (and I must remember to drop a few bucks in Mike’s donation box).

Moving my photos and music into their spacious new homes was an anticlimax, although it took a while.

I’m not quite at the Terabyte In My Living Room mark yet. The next firewire disk I buy for backups will do it.

related entries: Mac

room to grow

22nd October 2004 permanent link

I’m on my way home from work, and planning to pop into a shop on the way and pick up a couple of 250 gigabyte hard disks. I find this astonishing.

The PC I bought six years ago, and actually got some money for – not much – when I sold it on ebay in the spring, had a 6 gigabyte disk that seemed immense when I bought it – until I bought a film scanner. A couple of years before that I was working for a Big Computer Company on a project that involved setting up a Humungous Database for a client. The Humungous Database was housed on a thousand one gigabyte disks; the disks alone cost well into six figures.

Now I’m about to buy half of that for a few hundred bucks on my way home from work, just because I noticed last night that the disk I use for storing music – downloads, and backups of my favourite CDs – is getting a bit full. 250 gig of mirrored RAID should keep my tunes safe and sound and not too cramped for the time being. I wonder what will come along in the next five years to make a quarter of a terabyte seem hopelessly inadequate?

measuring enlightenment?

22nd October 2004 permanent link

Here are some of my fellow ashtangis discussing whether measuring people’ brainwaves during meditation can tell us anything valid about “enlightenment”:

It’s silly because the whole idea of ashtanga yoga (and most other yogas), as explained by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, is to merge the observer with the observed, subject with object. The subject becomes absorbed in the object and in so doing is reunited with Universal Consciousness. That's what yoga means. It can only be experienced subjectively, by definition. An objective experience implies separation from the object being observed. If you measure brainwaves with a scientific instrument - that's what you are doing - which is pointless from a yoga point of view

If enlightenment or cosmic consciousness truly does exist than there ought to be some objective, real-world evidence of some sort. The enlightened, by definition, should be capable of feats of mind--of concentration, volitional control of autonomic bodily functions, entering and leaving states of consciousness at will (for example, displaying the brainwaves of a conscious person even when in deep sleep)--far beyond what is normally considered possible for human beings. And our machines should be able to objectively measure this fact, even if we personally, not having put in the decades of meditation and consciousness training, cannot experience enlightenment or cosmic consciousness for ourselves. And lo and behold, our machines DO in fact allow the uninitiated to verify that something truly extraordinary is taking place in the minds of the so-called enlightened.

For the time being I’m just noting this as something I want to come back to / think more about. Blog as notebook (something I used to do separately from blog for public consumption). My previous thoughts on the subject.

related entries: Yoga

calling mum

21st October 2004 permanent link

Thursday Family Life Vignette: Maria went to a conference this week, so I was a Single Dad for a couple of days. On Tuesday evening I was on the phone to my mum. I was lying on the bed, holding the phone to my ear and talking; I noticed that Jack, too, was lying on a cushion, holding my cellphone to his ear and talking. Isn’t that sweet, I thought, he’s copying dad.

Indeed he was. Maria called later – “did you know Jack phoned me?”. She was in an airport bar in England with her colleagues when her phone rang and she found herself being babbled at by her infant son from half a continent away.

I had a little think about how unlikely that actually was. There are two easy ways to call Maria from my cellphone – ‘M’ and ‘call’, or ‘call’ twice if Maria happens to be the last person I called. More often than not she is. So that’s two two-key combinations. There are twenty keys on my phone, so on the worst case assumption that Jack is pressing two-key combinations at random, one chance in two hundred. In practice, he’s probably more likely to press the coloured buttons and, having pressed the green ‘call’ button once, he’s probably quite likely to press it again. Especially now that he knows it magically produces His Mum’s Voice.

(I’m assuming that a million monkeys, or one toddler, would take until the End Of Time to accidentally dial Maria’s number in full.)

yogablogging, part two

21st October 2004 permanent link

Further to my previous thoughts on how compatible blogging is with serious yoga practice: in an email to somebody yesterday, I had occasion to quote Pattabi Jois’s book Yoga Mala:

the truth should be pleasant to others; an unpleasant truth should not be uttered

… a policy which, if implemented thoroughly, would shut down the blogosphere, usenet and all other forms of online discussion overnight. (Obviously I’m using the term “discussion” quite loosely in the context of most of usenet)

Just this morning, for example, I posted a comment on [somebody else’s blog] saying that the works of [a fairly well known novelist] are “adolescent wank”. This is my true and honest opinion, but does that mean I really had to write it down and put it on the internet?

Wouldn’t put something like that on your own blog, would you Alan? Leave that sort of thing up to the anti-Alan who scurries around the dark cellars of the internet posting comments on other people’s blogs, don’t you Alan? Not exactly a shining beacon of ahimsa for the world, are you Alan?

related entries: Yoga

notes on nancy, part two

18th October 2004 permanent link

Apologies to my (three, that I know of) non-ashtangi yogablog readers if some of the following appears to be in sanskrit. That’s because it is. The bits I think are particularly important I will discuss and try to explain in English.

Things Nancy says Pattabhi Jois really doesn’t care about, and therefore she doesn’t either:

Preconceived ideas of “correct alignment” and what people’s practices should look like. To be discussed at length in the next part.

Fancy-looking frills, embellishments and optional extras in practice, especially handstands in primary series. Advanced ashtanga yoga involves a lot of amazing-looking arm balances and lifts – slowly floating into and out of handstands, doing all sorts of difficult and complicated stuff whilst you are up there. A friend in Mysore told me that the way one particular sequence used to be taught, your feet wouldn’t touch the ground for ten minutes or more. They’ve broken it up a bit since.

This is all fine and good for the few people who are practicing at that rarefied level. It becomes problematic when beginners see advanced demonstrations or videos and think “wow, I want to be able to do that”. One of my first teachers was exceptionally good at this stuff and liked to demonstrate it a lot in class – with the result that I spent hours and hours trying to learn to do those things when I really should have been working on far more basic things that I also couldn’t do and that did matter for a beginner. (He was a good and inspiring teacher in many ways and I learned a great deal from him. Nobody’s perfect.)

A lot of people also worry that their yoga practice is somehow inadequate if they haven’t already learned these amazing advanced tricks. Nancy says once you’ve learned urdhva kukkutasana, early on in the first advanced series, then you can easily float backwards and forwards in the vinyasas in primary series. Up to that point she’s never seen any evidence of Pattabhi Jois caring whether people can do it or not. Nor have I, for what that’s worth given that I’ve only spent a few months in Mysore. All advanced practitioners could do fancy lifts and extra handstands in the primary series if they wanted to: the advanced practitioners with the most beautiful practices I saw in Mysore chose not to – just did the most basic, plain simple practice with wonderful ease and grace.

Patanjali has a lot to say about this too. In the original yoga textbook, two thousand years or more ago, he devoted a large part of his discussion to siddhis. Siddhis are special powers, possessed by yogis and not by most other people, that come as a side effect of advanced yoga practice. Patanjali warns sternly that getting caught up in enjoying siddhis, or confusing them with the object of the exercise, is one of the most common and insidious obstacles to real yoga practice. Exceptional control of the body and the ability to perform cool-looking physical feats with it is a siddhi.

DISCLAIMER: I have never floated smoothly up to a handstand in my life, although – deluded siddhi-chaser that I am – I would like to one day.

Things that I thought were optional embellishments for advanced practitioners, but that Nancy to my surprise actually insists on:

Exiting from bhujapidasana and supta kurmasana via lift, tittibhasana and bakasana, with a pause at bakasana. I’m just about getting to the point where i can approximate this. I had always associated it with doing extra handstands etc., as discussed at length above, but no.

Between backbends, just touch the head down for one breath and straight back up again. No lying back down on the mat, having a cup of tea and a snooze in between which (exaggerating only slightly) is what I used to do. I’ve been trying to follow Nancy’s approach for the last couple of weeks(*). It isn’t as much harder as I expected.

(*) except on days when I have to do my advanced backbending practice where Guru Jack sits on my stomach.

Notes Part One, Part Three

Notes from the previous course I did with Nancy.

related entries: Yoga

bungay’s battle

17th October 2004 permanent link

I recently read Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. Excellent. Thanks to somebody in the blogosphere for recommending this book, but I can’t remember who. Apologies for the lapse in netiquette. Bungay is a management consultant and his take on matters, clearly based on experience of how things work in the real world, is refreshingly different from academinc historians and their tendency to see everything through the lens of why Dr. B is wrong about what Professor A said about it. I studied history but eventually decided I wanted no part of that inward-looking, self-referential academic world.

In the process Bungay overturns what he sees as some existing myths and preconceptions. He presents the German command structure as amateurish and poorly co-ordinated, muddling and improvising their way to defeat; whereas RAF Fighter Command were professionals rigorously and successfully executing a well-prepared plan – contrary to British mythology and, as he sees it, nothing to be ashamed of.

Communication and coordination between the German fighters and bombers was poor – they had incompatible radio systems, and in any case the German fighter pilots tended to be more interested in chasing glory than protecting bombers. The RAF system of ground-controlled interceptions was rigorously disciplined and tightly co-ordinated. Dowding and Park, the leaders of RAF Fighter Command, were air force professionals who had spent decades thinking about defence against bombers. Kesselring, the commander of the relevant part of the Luftwaffe, was a former artilleryman who had just made military history using his air force as flying artillery to support a successful ground campaign, but he had no systematic plan for how to defeat an opposing air force without, as Bungay puts it, “tanks on runways”. A lot of the German fighter pilots still believed the First World War “Knights of the Air” myth – again contrary to British myths, there is no evidence that they systematically attacked parachuting pilots who had baled out (although Dowding was on record as saying they would have been perfectly within their rights to do). Whereas the British as a matter of policy did attack German air-sea rescue planes, which German pilots regarded as a war crime. And the bombing of Guernica, the event that inspired the defining work of art of the twentieth century, was a failed attempt at a precision attack on a military target and not a deliberate terror raid.

I once flew from Munich to London City Airport in a little Dornier turboprop business jet. Flying up the Thames Estuary in a propellor-driven Dornier was an interesting experience for an Englishman of my generation. My childhood was twenty years after the war, but we still grew up with Airfix models of Hurricanes and Stukas hanging from the bedroom ceiling. Achtung, Spitfeuer! But there weren’t any. We must have been re-enacting the day when a squadron of Dorniers got separated from their escorts over London and, thanks to an untypical RAF command-and-control cockup, most of them managed to get away.

gentlemen: start your arguments

16th October 2004 permanent link

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, my favourite English novel of the 90s, can be read as an extended warning against taking music lists seriously. Despite which …

Jim Henley’s local radio station is on 88.5 (that will seem like such a quaint thing to say in a few years’ time). They must be having an anniversary or something, because they’re listing the alleged “All Time 885 Greatest Songs”. So far I’ve only looked at the Top 50.

It’s not a bad list. There’s a lot on there that I really like, and not much I would object to strenuously. Lennon & McCartney are overrepresented for my tastes (I can’t imagine Imagine placing anywhere in my personal top 885, let alone at number 2). I understand why. A lot of their stuff is really good – it’s just that I heard enough of it when I was younger to last a lifetime, and can’t imagine going out of my way to hear it ever again.

Jim finds the Top 50 “just a smidge boomer-heavy”. I don’t have a problem with that as such. I was four when Like A Rolling Stone came out, but would still automatically start any such list with it at the top. But then, I’m also an existence proof for not everybody thinking the music from their college years is the best ever – I was at college in the early 80s, and think the 80s were easily the worst decade in the history of popular music.

If asked to name some more recent songs for a Top 50 list, though, I could come up with a few things from the 90s that I would rate just as highly as any of the Music For Aging Hippies on this list. Björk’s Hyperballad. Pulp’s Common People. Radiohead’s Creep. REM’s Nightswimming. Eminem’s Stan. And – this next one depends on what they mean by “song”. If they mean something where the words in some sense stand apart from the music and are as important/memorable as what it sounds like, then you can forget the entire electronic/techno/dance music scene. If, however, it also includes something with vocals, but where the vocals are just one part of the overall cascade of sound – then I would nominate Underworld’s Born Slippy as my absolute favourite thing of that sort.

(Just to prove I’m not a real Classical Music Blogger, and to enrage those who are: I would take anything in the previous paragraph over any ten baroque flute concertos)

There’s nowhere near enough soul or Motown. One each by Aretha and Marvin. No Otis, no Smokey?

And I’m sure Jim will agree with me that the absence of Oliver’s Army is just bizarre.

UPDATE: I read the whole list. Oliver’s Army and Nightswimming are in there, so is plenty of Motown and classic soul, just not near enough to the top. In all I’ve heard just under half the 885, and I must say almost all of that almost half is really good. There really isn’t much in there that I don’t like.

UPDATE: Oh dear, it’s spreading and I’m a sucker for these things. Patrick Crozier questions the choices made for a “UK Rock Hall of Fame”

related entries: Music

paging nanny ogg

13th October 2004 permanent link

Fruit & Herbal Drinks Company

Somebody in Austria has been reading Terry Pratchett. Or perhaps Terry Pratchett has been holidaying in Austria. This shop in Neustift, in the Tirol, is “The Fruit & Herbal Drinks Company”. It sells traditional Austrian fruit and herbal drinks such as, for example, pear schnapps.

Incidentally, note the limited exposure range of the digital camera. In order for the interior of the shop to not be too dark, the white exterior wall is overexposed. This is still better than slide film could do. Colour negative film would get slightly more range – could expose the interior correctly without burning out the outside quite as much – but scanning a colour negative and getting the colour balance right is such a pain I wouldn’t do it just to illustrate a quick little joky weblog posting. Black & white film has still more exposure range, but in this case would miss the whole point of the picture, which is the colour of the light inside the shop.

Rick Coencas correctly points out that there are ways to squeeze a bit more range than this out of digital. Had I known two months ago what I now know about how to deal with digital photos in Photoshop, I could possibly have exposed the exterior correctly, let the interior be too dark, and then lightened the interior up again in the raw file conversion or using Photoshop’s shadow adjustment tool. I’m not totally convinced though. Pictures where I’ve used shadow adjustment – mostly people’s faces in shade when I’ve forgotten to put a spot of fill flash on them – have an odd flat, slightly murky look to them that I don’t like on prints. This may be because I need to use some noise reduction in conjunction with the shadow adjustment – further experimentation required.

related entries: Photography

recorded music bad?

13th October 2004 permanent link

Maria & I went last night to hear the Orchestre de le Suisse Romande playing the Elgar Violin Concerto and (Ravel’s arrangement of) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The Elgar was so-so. The soloist was a young Munich violinist called Julia Fischer. She played well, and so did the orchestra, but the rapport between them was somehow lacking. Big Name touring orchestra comes into town to play concert with up-and-coming young local soloist, not enough rehearsal? I don’t know. The Elgar as a piece has never really grabbed me anyway. Julia Fischer’s encore – a couple of snippets from the Bach partitas for solo violin – was great, so no problem with her ability to play.

Pictures was superb. The Suisse Romande is probably the best orchestra I’ve ever heard live. (The Munich Philharmonic is probably more famous, but I wasn’t that impressed the one or two times I’ve been to see them). Pictures isn’t a profound meditation on the human condition, but who ever said everything has to be? It’s a fantastic orchestral firework display.

Still, I found myself thinking I know the piece too well, and wouldn’t it be amazing to hear it for the first time properly – live, being blasted out by a good orchestra that’s clearly enjoying itself? Unfortunately I have about half a dozen recordings of it, two of which – Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of the original solo piano version, and Toscanini’s recording of the Ravel orchestral arrangement – are stunning. But even a stunning recording isn’t remotely like a good live performance, and over-familiarity takes away from the live experience.

related entries: Music


11th October 2004 permanent link

A couple of alternatives to Alan’s Götterdämmerung Theory of why the 1950s was the Golden Decade for recordings of the Eroica.

One is that Furtwängler, Klemperer and Toscanini between them pretty much mapped the outer limits of plausible interpretations of Beethoven, seen through the lens of their High Romantic musical upbringing. Anybody coming after them and playing in big orchestra, modern instruments style was pretty much doomed to be somewhere within the bounds they set – and so seem tame and middle of the road – or so far out as to seem absurd – Celibidache’s parody-of-Klemperer slow motion version, for example. It wasn’t until the period performance movement that people once again had something new to say about it in the 90s.

Simpler theory: classical music fans are ageing fuddy duddies, fixated on the recordings they knew and loved in their youth. This one isn’t true, though – a lot of the regulars on get just as excited about genuinely good new recordings as they do about discovering pirate CDs of obscure 1950s live recordings.

related entries: Music


10th October 2004 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait thinks obsessive classical record collectors are “mad, sad bastards” and life is too short to spend his online time hanging out with them. He may be right. But some of them are mad, sad bastards with encyclopaedic knowledge, and I know a lot less than Brian does about classical music, so I sometimes do find spending time in the newsgroup worthwhile when I’m wondering what direction my musical self-education should take next.

One such time was after I have accidentally discovered Wilhelm Furtwängler’s amazing 1944 recording of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, on emusic. This was about the most intense, passionate performance I had ever heard of any piece of music but the sound quality of the recording was pretty bad. I wondered if there might be a recording with equally wonderful playing and decent sound [there isn’t]. So I searched for Eroica recommendations and discovered that if there is one piece of classical music the world doesn’t need another recording of, it’s the Eroica.

There’s a guy called Eric Grunin who has catalogued all the recordings of it. There are 368 of them. I’ve heard fourteen (now, a lot less then). It became apparent that the mad, sad bastards on r.m.c.r., most of whom have probably heard a lot more than fourteen, did have clear favourites. In all, about seventy – so almost a fifth of the entire number of extant recordings – were mentioned as a favourite by somebody at some point. The top 20 were:

Conductor/Orchestra Year Votes My comments
Scherchen/Vienna State Opera Orchestra 1958 17 A strong favourite among r.m.c.r regulars. (Kleiber, Klemperer and Furtwängler get more votes, but spread over different recordings). I have listened to it several times but I just don’t get it.

I’ve read that the “Vienna State Opera Orchestra” was the members of the Vienna Philharmonic moonlighting outside their official recording contract. I don’t know if this is true.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1955 12 This is great in Klemperer’s very distinctive way – slow and majestic. But not ponderous. Absolutely not ponderous. A Klemperer fan (mad, sad bastard) jumped down my throat once for even saying the word “ponderous” in same sentence as Klemperer’s name, even though I wasn’t actually saying Klemperer was ponderous at all.
Erich Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic 1955 12
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1944 11 Easily my favourite. Despite its unsavoury provenance this is the version that anybody who loves the Eroica has to have heard. Unbelievable passion and intensity – although because of that, and the fact that the recorded sound is very poor, it’s not one to listen to every day.

How far was the Red Army from Vienna in December 1944? Probably not far. I can see how having Marshal Zhukov at the gates could cause people to play like the world was about to end
Monteux/Concertgebouw 1962 11
Bernstein/New York Philharmonic 1966 9 People talk about this having one of the most powerful Funeral Marches of any recording. The Funeral March is good, but the rest of it doesn’t do much for me.
von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic 1962 9 Von Karajan was a vastly overrated conductor and a member of the Nazi party.
Szell/Cleveland 1957 9
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1953 9
Erich Kleiber/Concertgebouw 1950 7 Probably my favourite version with a decent-sounding recording.
Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic 1952 7 Furtwängler is responsible for far more than his fair share of the 368 recorded Eroicas. This one is his second most highly rated. I’ve listened to it a few times and didn’t find it remotely as impressive as the 1944 one.
Giulini/Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1982 People on were surprised that this was so popular. I haven’t heard it. My local discount CD shop regularly has cheap copies of it, but I have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas on the grounds that I should broaden my horizons and listen to other things. (But see Toscanini)
Mengelberg/Concertgebouw 1940 7
Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra 1939 7 Apparently, back in the days when these two giants still walked the earth, one either liked Furtwängler or Toscanini. (In order to confuse people who believe in national stereotypes …) Toscanini the Italian was Mr. Precision, this is what is written down so this is what must be played. Furtwängler the German was notorious for taking liberties with the written score for the sake of passionate, lyrical expression. I think they’re both great. I picked up Toscanini’s 1939 Eroica in a second hand shop recently – long after I decided to have a moratorium on buying any more Eroicas, but it was cheap and I have other things by him that I like a lot – and it’s great. Much better sound than the ’44 Furtwängler too.
Klemperer/Philharmonia 1960 6 Klemperer’s stereo recording is good, but not as good as his earlier attempt.
von Matacic/Czech Philharmonic 1959 6
Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique 1993 5
Jochum/Berlin Philharmonic 1954 5 Jochum was a great Bruckner conductor. I haven’t heard his Beethoven.
Savall/Le Concert des Nations 1994 5
Barbirolli/BBC Symphony Orchestra 1967 4

r.m.c.r discussion here.

I find the periods when these things were recorded interesting. All of the top three, and nine out of twenty in total, are from the 1950s. What was going on in the 1950s? Here’s what I think was going on: the last gasp of European High Romantic culture. These orchestras, and these conductors, were only one or two generations removed from the great flowering of European music at the end of the nineteenth century – Klemperer had been Mahler’s assistant; Furtwängler studied with a close friend of Wagner. European high culture committed suicide in the first half of the twentieth century; modernism was part of its suicide note. In the 1950s it was mortally wounded but not quite dead yet, and meanwhile recording technology had progressed to the point where it was possible to capture its last practitioners still in something like their prime, in sound quality that is still perfectly listenable-to by contemporary standards. The earlier top recordings, of which I’ve heard Toscanini and Furtwängler but not Mengelberg, are listenable to because of their astonishing qualities as performances, but you really do have to make allowances for the sound quality.

(Eric Raymond thinks classical music, the literary novel and painting were killed off as vital, relevant art forms by “deadly geniuses” – Schönberg, Joyce and Picasso – who deliberately took them away from conventional forms that were accessible to audiences and less talented practitioners, into rarefied places where hardly anybody could follow. It’s an interesting idea and I have more that I want to say about it; at this point I will just note that the moribund art forms he’s talking about are quintessentially European, and European culture as a whole was underoing some pretty serious upheavals round about the time when modernism came along. This does not, of course, apply to jazz; although American culture was also going through an unsettled spell round about the time Coltrane killed jazz.)

General consensus seems to be that the 60s, 70s and 80s really didn’t have much to add to what had already been done in the previous generation.

Things start to get interesting again in the 90s with the rise of period style performances trying to use using authentic circa-1805 instruments, performance practices and timings. Of these, Gardiner and Savall appear in the Top Twenty; Norrington’s performance with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is too new to have much of a following yet (2002), but also seems to be highly rated.

I have heard the Eroica properly, performed live, twice in my life. Once by the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and once a couple of weeks ago at a charity gig by a local amateur orchestra. I really enjoyed that one – they were playing their hearts out, and their conductor was pushing them right to, at times beyond, their technical limits in an attempt to produce a real performance and not just get them through the score without falling over. I admired him and them for that even if it did seem at times – the beginning of the finale – like it was all on the verge of going horribly wrong(*). Real people, really in a room in front of you struggling with the music, are almost always better than noise coming out of a box; and the Eroica is such great music it would be hard to ruin it completely (although I have heard a recording by Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields that makes it sound dull, a quite astonishing achievement)

(*) I mentioned this to my sister, who is principal cello in an amateur orchestra. She says she prefers playing Malcolm Arnold to Beethoven for that very reason – the music’s good, but people don’t know how they expect it to sound so they can’t so easily spot where it all nearly goes off the rails.

related entries: Music

child psychology

10th October 2004 permanent link

Sunday Family Life Vignette:

We got home this evening from a weekend away in the mountains. Everybody was hungry, and it wasn’t long before Jack’s bedtime, so I wanted to cook something quick. I made a stirfry. Stirfry is too hot for a small boy to eat straight from the wok, so I cut a few bits up and put them on a saucer to cool down. Jack ate them quickly and liked them (I love it when he likes my cooking), so we took the saucer away and gave him his bowl with more of the same stuff, now also cooled down a bit.


He did not want the bowl, and insisted on having his saucer back and having the food served out from the bowl onto the saucer a bit at a time. Why? I don’t know. Possibly because he knew he liked the stuff on the saucer and was suspicious of the stuff in the bowl – even though he could see it being served out of the bowl onto the saucer.

Or possiby: he’s learning to drive his own fork at the moment, so messy mealtimes again. The last time mealtimes involved this much mopping up was when he was just starting to eat solids which was – god, a year ago. How did that happen? Anyway, perhaps a saucer is more easily navigable than a bowl if you’re a beginner with a fork.

notes on nancy, part one

7th October 2004 permanent link

Yogablogging: various notes about, and/or random thoughts inspired by, the yoga course I did last week with Nancy Gilgoff. Part One.

Nancy says: “always touch a student like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t)”. This works. For the first week after my son was born, he would scream blue murder the whole time when Maria and I were changing and dressing him. When the nurses in the clinic or Frau Meyer our visiting midwife did it, he would lie there quite happily gurgling at them. So one day I watched carefully how Frau Meyer did it. She was quick and decisive about what she did, like somebody who has done it thousands of times with hundreds of babies:

old pampers off and lift bottom and wipe! and new pampers under and bottom down and wrap! and lift shoulders and shirt on! …

Whereas I was slow and hesitant like some kind of new father who’s only been doing it for a few days:

old pampers off now where are the wipes ah here so now wipe carefully and where was the new pampers? ah over here oops missed a bit wipe again now put the bottom down to reach for the new pampers so we'll have to lift him up again – carefully, we don’t want to strain his little back – and finally that’s done but jesus how am I ever going to get this teeshirt over his head the neck's far too small ah I have to undo this button here …

And so on ad infinitum. I decided the way forward was to just try imitating Frau Meyer – quick. decisive. don’t show fear. Immediate success – happy, gurgling baby. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.

related entries: Yoga

what is abstract art?

6th October 2004 permanent link

Eric Raymond is back, and on an art-rants roll with this:

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last hundred years – become drained of vitality, driven their audiences away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as smoothed-out elevator music.

And this:

If we judge by what the critical establishment promotes as "great art", most of today's artists are bad jokes. The road from Andy Warhol's soup cans to Damien Hirst’s cows in formaldehyde has been neither pretty nor edifying. Most of "fine art" has become a moral, intellectual, and esthetic wasteland in which whatever was originally healthy in the early-modern impulse to break the boundaries of received forms has degraded into a kind of numbed-out nihilism.

One question Eric touches on: what is “abstract” visual art?

[Bathsheba Grossman] will laser-etch the protein structure of your choice into glass, using the same technique as in the Large Scale Model, for prices starting at $145. These images of cloudy, intricate structure are visually beautiful enough as abstracts, but they derive their true power from being about something.

Can a literal representation of a physical object that actually exists in the real world be “abstract” art? Clearly not in the same sense as a Jackson Pollock painting. What do people mean, then, when they talk about “abstract” photographs? This is one of my favourites among my own photographs - is it “abstract”?

water reflection, Kerala

What about these rather better pictures by Bill Atkinson? Clearly in one sense a photograph can never be “abstract” – every photograph is an image of something that actually existed in the world at a particular moment, seen from a particular perspective under a particular light. What do we mean when we call a picture of something that actually exists an “abstract” picture?

Is it a picture where the artist’s primary intention, or the viewer’s primary interest, is more in the picture as a thing in itself than in what the picture is “of”? But then isn't that true at least to some degree in all visual art? Even in photojournalism – one of the most literal, representational artforms of all, one might think. James Nachtwey, the greatest war photographer of his generation, says

I'm trying not to create photographs that viewers will look at and think: "What a good photographer he is," or "Look what an interesting composition he can make." I want the first impact, and by far the most powerful impact, to be about an emotional, intellectual and moral reaction to what is happening to these people.

… but I’m afraid when I look his pictures, I’m just as stunned by his compositional brilliance as by the subject matter.

Oops, deep water.

related entries: Photography

winni puh

6th October 2004 permanent link

Maria recently acquired a DVD of Винни Пух, the Russian cartoon of Winnie the Pooh, on ebay. She has been telling me for ages how great this is. I walked in in the middle while Jack was watching it and didn’t immediately recognise what it was. Pooh himself is drawn very differently from the original illustrations – Maria says possibly so that he looks like the actor who is doing his voice, who is a famous comedian – although the other characters are pretty true to life. Despite not recognising what it was I did see immediately that it was really good. Superb drawing, lovely music (*) – some kind of harpsichord thing that is obviously some soviet musician’s idea of “English” – and I even understood some of the dialogue. (About one word in ten but hey, you have to start somewhere). So when I saw (and read, well done me) the title, I agreed with her that yes, it’s great.

But there are only three chapters on the DVD. I asked her when she was planning to buy the rest. She said there is no “rest”. They only ever made three episodes. Didn’t people like it, I asked. Oh yes, she said, everybody loved it. But it was the Soviet Union. The fact that something was really good and everybody loved it had no bearing at all on how much of it got made.

I wondered then why the people who made it couldn’t have made some more after the end of the Soviet Union, if it was so popular. But then it occurred to me that capitalism isn’t perfect either – the rights to Winnie the Pooh are firmly in the clutches of the Evil Disney Empire (**), who would not take kindly to their hideous saccharine travesty being faced with superior Russian competition.

(*) Soviet composers are of course well known for good film music

(**) I am well aware that Disney, when Walt was alive and possibly even afterwards in a few isolated instances, made great and wonderful works of art. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of all their business practices.


4th October 2004 permanent link

As I expected, the intensive yoga course I did last week was intensive, and left me with no time or energy for writing anything. Apologies to Jim Henley readers looking for fresh yogablogging.

There will be some soon, when I’ve figured out which of my notes from the course it’s actually ok to publish – as I said when I did a shorter version of the same course a couple of years ago:

I’m not going to describe specific adjustments here – there might just be people stupid enough to think that they could go and “help” their friends after reading a third-hand description of an adjustment on the web from somebody who did a weekend workshop, and then someone gets hurt. Wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.

But if yogablogging is what the public wants, yogablogging is what the public will get. Eventually.

related entries: Yoga

music dvds

4th October 2004 permanent link

I was going to post an email about music that I sent to Brian Micklethwait today, pointing him to something Tyler Cowen quoted from the estimable Klaus Heymann of Naxos; but then I noticed I didn’t need to because he did, and said more about it than I was going to say anyway.

related entries: Music

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