alan little’s weblog archive for september 2005

(no) yoga practice diary

30th September 2005 permanent link

This has never been a yoga practice journal, for reasons some of which I wrote about a while ago. Some other people do choose to write practice journals, and I dip into a few of them from time to time. Here’s quite an interesting one I found recently.

Just now, though, I feel the urge to vent about the general – dismal – state of my practice. It all started the last week in August. Maria and I had our wedding celebration at the end of August (although we actually got married some time earlier), and the week leading up to it was completely full of fetching parents from airports, doing all the last minute preparation stuff one has to do for these events, and having the series of gradually increasing mini-parties with arriving friends that led up to the Main Event. I had no time to even think about practicing, but I was happy.

Afterwards we went to New York for a week’s honeymoon. We had enough time that I actually did practice most days – and how was it, with jetlag, after a week of solid partying and no practice? It was great. Super smooth, focused, even flexible. Locals were telling us the whole time how lucky we were to have arrived after the hot, humid weather was over; I meanwhile was sweating so much in my yoga practice the skin on my fingertips wrinkled. I went to Dharma Mittra’s (non ashtanga) advanced class one day, which was kind of crazy but fun as a one-off holiday treat. There wouldn’t have been any point going to one ashtanga class, and Maria would have been completely within her rights to kill me if I had even thought about going to Eddie’s Mysore class every morning on our honeymoon.

So far, so good. But I also picked up some kind of bronchial infection from going in and out of all that unhealthy air-conditioning all week, that resulted in a couple of weeks of a heavy cough when I got home. Work went crazy too, not unexpectedly. During my two weeks holiday I went from being the new guy on the team to manager of a high pressure project. I knew before I went away this was going to happen and I’m enjoying it; but there’s still a huge difference between paddling along a calm river seeing the edge of the drop ahead, and actually being in the white water with rocks all around you.

David Williams’ strictures about practicing every day notwithstanding, trying to ujayi breathe while you’re coughing green chunks really isn’t fun so I didn’t. So that was another ten days off – and this time it did all go horribly wrong.

For the last six months or so (prior to August) I had been getting into quite a good left side marichyasana d – which is something I had struggled towards for years due to an old injury to my right knee. That’s gone, although I’m reasonably confident two or three weeks consistent practice will bring it back again. In the summer I was also just starting to be able get my hands and feet together in supta kurmasana without any assistance – this was something Sharath was able to put me into easily when I was in India, but I had never managed it on my own.

Why so bad? Is the cumulative effect of two layoffs much worse than one? The heat and humidity in New York are certainly good for yoga practice compared to cold, stiff Germany. My mother-in-law is staying with us at the moment (having, heroically, looked after our son for a week in a country where she doesn’t speak a word of the language, so that we could have a honeymoon), and the resulting piroshky-heavy diet certainly can’t be helping. The scales say I’m not putting weight on, but my yoga practice thinks I am.

None of this matters anyway. A proper yogi just does his or her practice, whatever that happens to be at any given moment, and is content with it. It’s part of the nature of ashtanga vinyasa yoga though, with its fixed set of practice series of ascending difficulty, that it attracts achievement-oriented people who worry about where they are on the ladder; learning to let go of that attitude is a big challenge for many of us. I think I’m ok – I do find it a little frustrating that I’m struggling now with things I could do easily three weeks ago, but it’s not a big deal.

Practicing yoga for the sake of one’s health, a firm body, or enjoyment is not the right approach.

… says ashtanga yoga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Yoga Mala. Nor is practicing yoga in order to be able to perform cool-looking physical feats. All those things are side effects. Neverthless, I don’t see much harm in enjoying them along the way, as long as one doesn’t get them confused with the actual object of the exercise.

related entries: Yoga

steve on compression

30th September 2005 permanent link

Steve Crandall, who knows a great deal more about these things than I do, has some interesting thoughts on acceptable bitrates for digital music:

If you have space lossless is good, but not always detectable. Some very serious double blind tests suggest 128kbps AAC is probably good enough for any ears over 40 years old and many younger ears. 160kbps AAC fools serious ears very well.

Being of a nervous disposition, I back my CDs up using Apple Lossless. But the 250 GB hard disk I put them on is rapidly filling up, and maintaining two copies of things – a slightly compressed archive copy, and a much smaller copy to go on my iPod – is a pain in the ass.

It is a different matter if you are using something recorded at better than CD rate. We did some work with AAC compression on very high bit rate input audio and had much better than CD sound with files much smaller than CD files. A problem is very little is prepared for sale at high quality. A larger problem is most people just don't care. Regular mp3s seem good enough for most people and few people have the $300 headphones or $3000 speakers you really need if you want to focus on the differences.

It’s laughable that people sill regard the quarter of a century old CD standard, or compressed formats that are indistinguishable from it, as some kind of benchmark of sonic excellence. But it’s Good Enough for most people for most purposes, and for the foreseeable future anything better is likely to be so heavily DRM’d it will be useless.

I have a pair of $200 headphones. I bought them used on ebay for nowhere near $200.

(I'd rather put that sort of money into live music...)

Of course Steve’s right in principle. But I have a small child and don’t get out much, and in the evening after I’ve put my small child to bed I like to sit down in the living room and listen to some recorded music (on my $200 headphones). There’s also the They Don’t Make Musicians Like That Any More problem: if giants like the Smetana Quartet still walk the earth, I don’t know who or where they are.

related entries: Music

currently listening to …

28th September 2005 permanent link

Schubert’s magnificent String Quintet in C Major, of which I have four recordings: Hollywood Quartet, Hungarian Quartet, Borodin Quartet and Casals, Stern & friends. They’re all good: the Hollywood Quartet and Casals, Stern & co. are almost always near the top of “best recordings” lists for this piece, and I personally think the Hungarian Quartet are even better. All of them (Note To Music Industry) are on CDs I bought legally – three new (two even at full price in England: and if you come from somewhere else and think CDs are expensive, just try buying them in England) and one used on ebay.

Anyway, despite already having four perfectly good recordings of the piece, two of which are wonderful, I decided I felt like getting another one[*]. Browsing I discover that there’s a controversial 1960s version by the Smetana Quartet, with a wierd not-very-slow slow movement that people seem to either love or hate. That sounds promising – more so, anyway, than the kind of bland technical perfection I’d be likely to get from modern ensembles.

It’s on Testament, a British record label that specialises in re-releasing legendary performances from the classical recording golden age in the 1950s and 60s. There’s at least a fifty-fifty chance Ludwig Beck would have it, but I don’t feel like going shopping again at the moment; it’s Oktoberfest time and town is full of drunk tourists.

So, Amazon. Amazon has a vast classical music catalogue, but its search is useless. The Smetana Quartet – one of the top ten chamber music ensembles of the last half century – isn’t listed under “browse performers”. Searching for "Smetana Quartet” brings up all five hundred recordings of the string quartets the composer Bedrich Smetana wrote, with no option to sort them by anything useful like performer or recording date. I trawl down the list until I eventually find one performed by the Smetana Quartet, open it and click on Performer. Back to the same list of five hundred recordings by other people.

I spend at least as much time on and as I would otherwise have spent making a side trip to Ludwig Beck on my way home from work, without success. Eventually I find the CD on, but getting Amazon orders shipped from the States is too slow and expensive. It occurs to me to try cutting and pasting the ASIN from the url to and voila! My CD is there, it’s just that you can only find it if you already know its Amazon item number. Ordered.

The Smetana Quartet also recorded most of Beethoven’s string quartets in the 1960s. These recordings are legendary. I have heard one of them, and it is one of the most inspiring performances I have ever heard of any piece of music by anybody. I’d love to hear the rest, but they’re absurdly difficult to get hold of.

They were recorded by Czech record label Supraphon – who, however, haven’t seen fit to re-release them on CD. Supraphon had/have some kind of joint recording and marketing deal with Denon, the Japanese hi-fi equipment maker who also have their own record label. And as far as I have been able to find out, the complete Smetana Quartet 60s Beethoven is currently available on CD, with “Supraphon” even written on the labels, but actually only on Denon and only in Japan. Japanese online music stores charge reasonable prices for CDs, but their shipping rates outside Japan are expensive. Denon CDs occasionally show up in Europe on ebay or in second hand shops, where they fetch high prices as cult rarities. Note To Denon: just how incompetent are your marketing people? Get a frigging distributor for christ’s sake! The very concept of “cult rarities” in a digital medium is absurd.

So Amazon’s classical music search is useless, and some record companies don’t choose to sell their stuff where Alan lives. Another big so what? Is there in fact going to be a point to all this? I’m getting there.

[*] “It’s not necessary to own 50 Beethoven cycles, 46 of which you never play, when you can be just as happy with 20 of them, 16 of which you never play” – David Hurwitz

related entries: Music

record shoppin’ blues

27th September 2005 permanent link

Go and listen to (recently deceased Mississippi bluesman) R.L. Burnside, said Michael Blowhard. So, he [*] having bought me lunch a couple of weeks ago ’n’ all, I did. I found some samples among amazon's free music downloads, and some bits and pieces on allofmp3, listened to them, and was much impressed. So I thought I would go out and buy a CD or two. Note To Music Industry: people who download music and find they like it often then go out and buy CDs.

Or try to.

There are three record shops I go in in Munich. Ludwig Beck is an upmarket clothing store – everything from dirndls and lederhosen to designer jeans – right on Marienplatz in the middle of town. Except that, lurking on the top floor where you would never suspect it, is the biggest specialist classical and jazz record shop I have ever seen. Beck is a pretty good place for a comprehensive selection of obscure stuff, although the prices are high.

Just down the road from Beck is a branch of the German drugstore chain Müller – but this particular branch, for no obvious reason, just happens to have Munich’s second best toyshop downstairs and a big record shop upstairs. Müller’s classical selection is nowhere near as comprehensive as Beck’s, but it’s decent and angled more towards budget labels, so it’s often worth a look too.

Then there is zweitausendeins, a strange little place that specialises in the ultra-budget Brilliant Classics label, and also has odds end ends of remaindered stuff from other labels at very cheap prices. Not the place to go to look for something specific, but good for serendipitous browsing from time to time. Last time I was there I scored a ten-cd box of 1950s and 60s soviet recordings by legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for 17 euros, some of which turned out to be wonderful.

Ludwig Beck’s jazz section seemed like the obvious place to start looking for R.L. Burnside, but no. Disappointing. There were only a couple of sheves of blues, and no R.L. Müller is just down the road so I checked there too. I had never looked at jazz or blues in Müller before, but it turns out they have quite a big blues section, in which R.L. and his Fat Possum label mates are present in large numbers. Hurrah.

Big wow. Alan had to look in two shops before he found the CD he wanted. Is there actually some kind of point he’s meandering towards making here? Bear with me.

[*] Michael, not R.L.

related entries: Music


20th September 2005 permanent link

Five years ago, on my first visit to New York, I was absolutely floored by the Museum of Modern Art. Since then the museum has had a spell of exile in Queens while its midtown Manhattan site was completely rebuilt and greatly enlarged. Now it’s back. The old MoMA was a hard act to follow.

Things that struck me about the new one …

Edward Weston’s prints: not for their subject matter, which is irrelevant, but for their sheer technical beauty – lustrous depth, rich contrast, incredible sharpness. Can nobody print black & white photographs like that any more? Certainly nobody whose work is on show in MoMA at the moment can – Frank Gohlke’s prints, for example, are shockingly flat and muddy by comparison.

(Frank Gohlke might argue – certainly anybody could argue – that producing prints that are technically immaculate in that particular highly abstract Weston way is not the only legitimate artistic goal in photography. He/they would be right. It’s just difficult for me personally, having just been struck dumb by the sheer excellence of Weston’s prints to the point where my wife almost had to drag me from the room, to then go and look at technically inferior prints immediately afterwards, whatever the non-technical merits of the pictures might be)

Joel Sternfeld’s pictures of the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway on Manhattan’s west side.

I gather they have some stuff by painters and sculptors too, although remarkably little of it post-Jackson Pollock – i.e. in the last fifty years – seems to be interesting in any way.

The new building. Michael Blowhard points out that Terry Teachout is most unimpressed. I liked it, as a building, for two main reasons:

(1) I found the huge atrium very impressive.

MoMA atrium MoMA atrium

(2) Windows. Michael, I know, and Terry, I assume, are long-time Manhattanites and might therefore be jaded and inclined to overlook the fact that Manhattan itself is the ultimate work of Modern Art. I, on only my second visit to the city, am not and find just walking around the place looking at it hugely exciting. The new MoMA has windows that offer some great views of the fantastic surroundings. I don’t remember windows or being able to see the surroundings anywhere in the old MoMA except the courtyard.

view from MoMA view from MoMA

So I found the new building impressive as a building. But I liked the old MoMA too, I didn’t find this visit such a mind-blowing experience as my first one. That was my most awe-inspiring art gallery experience ever by far. Why not? This time I wasn’t seeing the amazing MoMA collection for the first time. Maybe this time they didn’t have the right things on display to push my buttons – there is nowhere near enough photography on show given the alleged vastness of the new display space; nor do they have the old hit-them-right-between-the-eyes-right-away “highlights of the collection” room right by the entrance. Pollock, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso … That was an excellent idea. And this time I was there on Labor Day so it was very busy.

Is the new building actually a better or worse place for viewing art than the old one? I certainly don’t dislike it the way Terry does, but I wouldn’t say it was obviously a huge improvement either.

“The Lenin's Tomb of Modern Art”, says Robert Locke. “Fill ’er up”, says Edward Winkleman.

related entries: Photography

last week in new york

11th September 2005 permanent link

I don’t normally write much about politics and current affairs. I don’t think my views are particularly novel, interesting or well-informed (although there are clearly plenty of people who don’t let details like that deter them). They are not my main interests in life, and I find most of what goes on in politics so unutterably stupid and depressing that I don’t especially want to spend my precious time thinking about it more than I have to.

In particular, I don’t think once having spent a weekend in New Orleans qualifies me to have an interesting opinion on the catastrophe there(*). Like pretty much everybody else, I was appalled when Katrina looked like it was going to be a direct hit, relieved when it wasn’t, then only slowly appalled again as it became apparent that the city was being destroyed anyway.

Nevertheless, a few things that struck me in New York last week:

TV news presenter Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation:

A personal thought. We have come through what may have been one of the worst weeks in America's history, a week in which government at every level failed the people it was created to serve. There is no purpose for government except to improve the lives of its citizens. Yet as scenes of horror that seemed to be coming from some Third World country flashed before us, official Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images, but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality. …

Read the rest. He’s just as scathing about (Democrat) city and state government in Louisiana as about (Republican) Washington. American “Mainstream Media” clearly not entirely in the pockets of the political establishment just yet.

Local news full of stories of hundreds of NY Police and Fire Department volunteers heading down south to assist relief efforts. Huge sense in the city that the rest of the country was there for them in 2001, including Louisiana police and firefighters, and now it’s time to pay something back – even if it means taking the risk of having their own emergency services short-staffed on 9/11. This is the sort of thing that makes New York one of the world’s great cities.

High proportion of Muslim families among those paying their respects at the World Trade Center site the evening Maria and I went there to do so.

(*) Although I suppose i could point out that both the freeways into New Orleans go over Lake Pontchartrain on bridges like this, and having both of those impassable – though not exactly difficult to foresee – would have made it difficult for even a (hypothetical) well organised relief effort to reach the city quickly.

yoga friends

11th September 2005 permanent link

Bettina Anner, the first person in Germany authorised to teach ashtanga vinyasa yoga by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, has a new website. I do wish people wouldn’t use Flash unnecessarily, but that’s not going to stop me supporting my teacher and friend.

Another of Bettina’s friends and students, Nathalie Prieger, also has a website coming for her clothing company Mandala Fashion. I’ve written about Nathalie’s stuff before: it’s good. If you’re a girl. I’ve tried several times to persuade her to make clothes for men too, because it’s difficult for us to find suitable yoga kit; I have yet to convince her that I am a viable market.

related entries: Yoga

little bismarck

11th September 2005 permanent link

A Sunday Family Life Vignette, in which my admiration for my son’s negotiating skills continues to grow.

Jack has just had his bedtime bottle of milk. He would like some more, but he knows he only gets one:

Jack: daddy, more milk?
Me: no, you’ve had enough milk.
Jack (immediately): ok, juice.
Me: er …

(Maria thinks Jack shouldn’t drink too much juice either; it is sugary and bad for his teeth)

Maria: how about water?
Jack: no, juice.
Maria: or tea?
Jack: no, juice.

I go and get him a cup of (heavily watered-down) apple juice.

I can’t help but admire his negotiating skills. He knows his best-case scenario – another bottle of milk – is unlikely, so he clearly has already chosen his fallback position – juice. Having fallen back to his fallback position, he sticks to it tenaciously, divides the opposition, and eventually gets it. I personally wouldn’t have conceded defeat on the milk quite so quickly; nevertheless, not bad for two-and-a-bit years old.

gotham honeymoon

9th September 2005 permanent link

56th Street

Just back from a week’s honeymoon in New York. Some highlights:

A week with Maria. No child (stayed at home with grandma), no work, just us.

Seeing my old friend Charlie and meeting his new wife Carol, on a walk from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn Heights and an afternoon at MoMA.

Lunch with Michael Blowhard, who turns out to be every bit as interesting and charming in person as he is in writing, and his equally delightful wife.

Realising we had booked our trip over Labor Day weekend and all hotels and B&Bs were either fully booked, expensive or miles out in Queens. Or all three. But then discovering New York Habitat’s website. NY Habitat do short term apartment sublets, and they found us a great apartment: very nice place, super-friendly landlady, very convenient location at the downtown end of midtown (or vice versa).

An apartment which furthermore turned out to be barely a block from Saravanaas, 81 Lexington Avenue – easily the best South Indian food I have ever eaten outside South India.

Couples massage at Essential Therapy on East 26th Street (even though their website is a flash-only abomination). Maria’s verdict: “That was the best massage I ever had in my life … I thought she was trying to kill me”.

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