alan little’s weblog archive for december 2004

a good samaritan

29th December 2004 permanent link

One of the obstacles German bureaucrats put in the way of foreigners wishing to get married in their country is a bizarre fetish about copies of official documents, such as birth certificates, having to be less than six months old. Russian bureaucrats, meanwhile, have a bizarre fetish of their own about not issuing copies of birth certificates by post, and not issuing them to people’s mothers bearing copies of passports and powers of attorney either. The birthee has to go and get them personally.

Fortunately we were planning to visit Maria’s mother for New Year anyway; also fortunately, Maria’s mother still lives in the town where Maria was born – unlike, say, Maria’s friend who now lives in Moscow but was born in the utmost outer reaches of Siberia. So collecting the birth certificate itself was quick and painless – a short walk to the office, no queue, out in under half an hour. But. We also had to get an additional official stamp called an “apostile” certifying that this was a genuine Russian birth certificate, Russian birth certificates not being documents German bureaucrats see every day. And we couldn’t get that in Maria’s home town; we had to go to the nearest big city, Samara, a couple of hours away by bus.

We duly arrived in Samara(*) where in order to get the apostile Maria was required to produce her Russian id. Which she doesn’t have, not being resident in Russia. A passport apparently wasn’t good enough: the apostile had to be signed for by somebody with a Russian resident’s id document. OK, said Maria, I have a cousin in Samara, but she lives at least an hour away out in the suburbs. Oh no, said the official, it doesn’t have to be somebody who knows you – anybody with an id document will do. (How does this make anything more secure? I have no idea).

So now it was Find A Random Stranger Time. Not only that, but Find A Random Stranger who happens to have their id with them – according to Maria, you only need this thing if you’re planning to deal with officialdom and most people don’t bother carrying them unless they have a reason to visit a government office that day.

But we got lucky – the second person we asked, a young lady who was buying her lunch at a kiosk outside the apostile office, had her id in her office, which was in the same buildng, and said she would help us out. This turned out to involve a not insignificant amount of hassle and risk: inviting us into her office to fill in several long and complicated forms, and then leaving her office to accompany us to the notary’s office twice – once to hand the forms in, once to collect the duly stamped and certified birth certificate. And giving her name, address and passport number to two complete strangers. As a result of which Maria now has a brand new, shiny, stamped and guaranteed authentic birth certificate and I can marry her. Hurrah.

In the event (highly unlikely I suppose) that has any readers in Samara – folks, book your holdays with Lyudmila at Safari Travel. Phone (8462) 337710, email safari[at]sama{dot}ru. Israel a speciality, but all destinations welcome.

Note for any historical aviation enthusiasts who might be reading this, e.g. my dad & my brother: on the way into Samara you pass a Sturmovik parked in the middle of the road, commemorating the fact that Samara was where Sturmoviks were made. (No picture because we were still on the bus at this point, the bus had extremely dirty windows and the light was lousy)

UPDATE: and for music aficionados – Shostakovich finished his Seventh, “Leningrad”, Symphony in Samara after being evacuated from the siege of Leningrad. Music Trivia Fact courtesy of the liner notes from the Naxos recording of Shostakovich’s cello concerti.

currently listening to …

25th December 2004 permanent link

Christmas Day morning: Ronan Keating’s version of Fairytale of New York, on Maria’s Rock Christmas CD. (Rock?). I had to listen to it out of a kind of morbid fascination, and it’s actually not as awful as I expected. Although I still can’t think of any reason at all why anybody would want to listen to it. Especially not when the real thing by the Pogues is sitting on a shelf three feet away – now that’s proper Christmas music.

I imagine Brian Micklethwait would have much the same opinion, with Fritz Werner playing the role of the Pogues, of our other Christmas CD which is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1973 recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I’m enjoying it though.

Christmas Day evening: not listening to any CDs because we have, coincidentally, Harnoncourt conducting in a performance of Figaro on TV. Once or twice a year cable TV turns out to be worth having.

related entries: Music


25th December 2004 permanent link

Even supposing I did have time to write a couple of little xmasblog entries while Maria is putting Jack to bed for his afternoon nap, I still wouldn’t be able to post them because our phone is down until Monday.

We – and apparently a substantial chunk of the Munich suburb where we live – have been incommunicado since Thursday evening because of a faulty switch, but in Deutsche Telekom’s opinion this is not a serious enough problem to justify disturbing the on-call engineer. Assuming there is an on-call engineer. I hope at least the hospital at the end of the road has working phones.

Meanwhile we’ll be back online on Monday afternoon at the earliest, just in time to leave for our flight to Russia [UPDATE: maybe having the engineer well rested and raring to go was the right strategy. We were actually back on by 9:30 Monday morning]. Not having a landline phone isn’t a huge problem, it’s just a bit more expensive to call our families and wish them a happy christmas on our cellphones. But four days of no internet! I can live without publishing blog entries, but it’s quite surprising to find out just how much you miss quickly being able to google a song lyric, get the Russian weather forecast, (check a link for a blog entry), get TV listings without having to trudge through teletext …

Note To Self: remember never to attempt to run a business from a location that doesn’t have at least two independent internet links. A cable modem would do, or even cellphone data – although cellphone data contracts in Germany are still outrageously expensive for pitiful amounts of data at pathetically slow speeds.

but before i go …

23rd December 2004 permanent link

Train Your Brain By Watching Experts Perform A Task? Randall Parker links to an interesting study – “once the brain has learned a skill, it may simulate the skill without even moving, through simple observation … When we watch a sport, our brain performs an internal simulation of the actions, as if it were sending the same movement instructions to our own body”

This strikes me to a degree as obvious and nothing new. When I was into rock climbing, ten years and more ago, it was generally known that visualisation and mental rehearsal worked. I also read that one’s technique can actually improve during rest periods and injury layoffs. When you are actually climbing, or doing physical training, you are often fatigued and afraid, and these things interfere with learning efficient technique. A lot of technique training is hard-wiring what you have learned into the reflexive nervous system so that you can do it without conscious mental effort. Apparently taking time out can allow the neural pathways that you have trained to become hard-wired more efficiently than if you only ever work them under stressful conditions.

That's all about mental rehearsal and one’s own training sessions though. What’s interesting here is that the technique learning process also comes into play watching people exercise the same skills. When I was studying yoga in India, I certainly enjoyed watching one of the most concentrated collections of advanced yoga practitioners on the planet doing their practice, and I may have thought there might be tips about technique that I could consciously learn and copy by watching such people; but I didn’t think that there might be such a profound neurological basis for it, or that it might be part of the reason why I made much faster progress there than I normally do at home.

If you’ve never tried to do a handstand in your life, and you see somebody float apparently effortlessly into a handstand, then fold their legs into lotus position, and then proceed to do lots more complicated stuff starting from that position … then you probably just think “wow, that’s amazing”. If you yourself have tried to do those things for a while then you can think “wow, that’s amazing that she can lift her feet so cleanly from there when I have to jump. Now, where are her hips in relation to her hands when she lifts off? …” In other words, you’re watching more analytically, looking for specific things.

These days I only have time to go to class once a week, and when I do I’m focused on my own practice not on watching the other students. The rest of the time I practice on my own at home. One of the techniques I use when I’m trying to learn intermediate-level techniques without a teacher is replaying mental videos of advanced students I saw doing the same things in Mysore three years ago.

Musicians listening to music show different patterns of brain activation to non-musicians.

The point I’m rambling towards making is this:

It’s intuitively obvious to anybody who practices things like dance or martial arts (or climbing or yoga, to take examples where I actually know what I’m talking about) that this sort of learning occurs. What’s new and interesting about the research Randall Parker links to is that we’re just beginning to understand how it works at a neurological level.

related entries: Yoga

happy christmas

23rd December 2004 permanent link

That’s it for blogging for the next two weeks. I will be spending Christmas at home, not writing anything, before heading off to Maria’s family in Russia for New Year with a camera, possibly even a laptop, but definitely no internet access. Dosvidanya.

Back next year.

mysore yoga blog

21st December 2004 permanent link

Russell, “a less-than-fit, recovering alcoholic lawyer studies Ashtanga yoga for nine months in India with the masters, Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois and family”. And writes very openly and interestingly about his experiences.

related entries: Yoga

the right tool for the job

21st December 2004 permanent link

I was browsing American Photo magazine in the international newsstand at the railway station this morning and noticed a piece about Magnum photojournalist Alex Majoli, who apparently does most of his work with a pair of Olympus C-5050 digicams. (Couldn't find an online verson to link to – here’s an Olympus press release instead). This is interesting: here's somebody who is clearly very good at what he does and knows what he needs to do it, choosing what would normally be regarded as a “serious amateur” camera in preference to a multi-thousand dollar professional SLR.

Olympus have have always made good cameras. According to reviews the 5050 has excellent optics and a good level of manual control – the latter being obviously essential for a working professional. They’re a lot smaller, lighter and cheaper than SLRs. And, as Majoli says in this profile on Apple’s website, they’re less obtrusive and menacing than some huge black Canon for people photography, especially in potentially tense situations like the sort Majoli works in.

Michael Reichmann in his review of Olympus’ successor model, the C-8080, says the camera is capable of producing great pictures but pans its user interface design. But if you’re using something as the main tool of your trade all day, every day, then ease of learning and setup is less important than control and the quality of the end result. See also Leicas and old manual Hasselblads: they are anything but easy or intuitive to learn, or to use on an amateur/sporadic basis; but for professionals they offer total control, and the lenses are second to none.

This is a clear case of somebody choosing the right tool for the job. If you look at his portfolios, Majoli clearly travels a lot in some rough and remote areas. I lugged a medium format camera and a 35mm SLR with a bag of lenses around India, and it was a pain. I’d be willing to bet I did not as a result get better pictures than Alex Majoli.

related entries: Photography

india blog

17th December 2004 permanent link

Instapundit links to Amit Varma’s India Uncut

I like the design. The sidebar picture is great – looks like Beethoven to me, although apparently it’s supposed to be Rapahel. I’m also quite keen on how it scrolls with the text but the the sidebar links’n’stuff don’t. Must study the CSS.

Oh, and some of the content is interesting too. Would certainly be worthwhile reading for naïve western yogis with ideas of modern India being still only dust, poverty, and big white cows. See for example this entry on Indian tech companies outsourcing work to China and Latin America (Three years ago I spoke to an Indian farmer who told me times were hard. All farmers, everywhere, always says that but I asked him why anyway. He said “globalisation” – Indian farmers are being undercut by produce from poor countries like Vietnam and Burma). Yoga students who have spent time in the traffic nightmare that is central Bangalore en route to or from Mysore, will understand why big Indian tech companies are threatening to outsource themselves from the city (I also heard this a few weeks ago from a colleague who works for Wipro).

And this:

The poor of India are far better off than they would have been if India’s economic liberalisation had not taken place, and there are far less of them than there would have been. ... Free markets aren’t magic, and past inquities don’t disappear as soon as the economy is opened up, but they are better than any alternative.

This post was produced using pyTextile

deirdre mccloskey

17th December 2004 permanent link

I never thought I would say anything like this about an article on economics, but this essay by Dierdre McCloskey, pointed to by Tyler Cowen, is a lovely piece of writing. It reminds me of Ursula le Guin – and that is very high praise. Le Guin is pretty much my favourite writer for Tone Of Voice, the sheer rhythm of the way her prose reads, and for other things too.

I remember my economic history professor at university very strongly recommending McCloskey’s then-new Economic History of Britain since 1700, but not anything specific about what was in it. (In general, I mildly regret that my stupid ideological blinkers stopped me making the most of the excellent educational opportunities I had then. But it’s not as if I’m the only person that can say that. Education is wasted on students.)

lazy blogging

15th December 2004 permanent link

A story that turns out to be primarily about superlative customer support for a piece of open source software, with big thanks to Roberto de Almeida the maintainer of pyTextile.

And what does pyTextile do? It takes me one step further in my quest to have home-grown blogging software that fits my needs & wishes like a glove. At the moment AYAWT does everything I want it to with regard to building nicely (?) formatted pages out of a pile of raw entries, publishing them to my hosting service and to a backup, and notifying technorati and various other people. The most laborious bit now – and therefore the next thing to be Simplified – is wrapping my text up in various required bits of administrative xml before I feed it into the AYAWT xml mill. It’s clearly possible to automate this so that I can just feed it plain text with links.

I had a look at various ways I might do this:

  1. Laboriously write my own. Nah. I’m not that stupid.
  2. HTMLTidy. HTMLTidy is intended for cleaning up bad html markup, such as what most Microsoft tools produce. It isn’t designed for converting flat text files to html. But in fact, I discovered that if you feed it a flat text file it does a pretty good job. It has just one fatal flaw: it doesn’t convert a blank line to a paragraph break, so everything ends up in one paragraph. I did a fair amount of option fiddling without finding a way of changing this.
  3. pyTextile. pyTextile is a python port of a well-known perl tool that is expressly designed for producing html from flat text files. It seems to do it rather well, but again when I tested it I found one one fatal flaw: it converts non-ascii characters to numeric codes, ignoring the fact that my files are all nice modern unicode and not bizarre ascii relics of the last century. Furthermore, I would have to wrap this up in an xhtml namespace declaration in order to get it through the rest of my process. I am exceedingly reluctant to even dip a toe into the xml namespace swamp for something that I’m doing on my own time for [some definition of] fun.
  4. ReStructured Text. ReST is another “simplified” markup language . One look at the how-to page makes it clear that this is not something I’m going to learn in half an hour on the train.

I could mess around putting manual paragraph breaks in before or after using HTMLTidy, but that would be putting one foot on the slippery slope to writing my own. Nah. I’m not that stupid. pyTextile seemed like the least flawed option, particularly when I discovered that the perl version apparently has a way to turn the numeric encoding off.

A bit of searching revealed that pyTextile was originally produced by Mark Pilgrim but is now maintained by Roberto de Almeida. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of support forum or mailing list, so I posted a comment on the relevant entry in Roberto’s development blog; without much hope because the blog entry dated from July and it was now the middle of November. But Roberto replied the next day, saying that switching off the numeric encoding for unicode files was already on his to-do list and he would let me have a pre-release version with it in within a week. Which he did. I did a quick test and it didn’t seem to be working, still getting numeric entities. Didn’t have time to look at it in more detail for a couple of weeks due to the Onrush Of Christmas and Life With A Toddler; but when I did, and sent some sample code and files to Roberto, he replied the same day pointing out what I was doing wrong and providing sample code that does work, like this:

import textile

input = open('input.txt').read()
html = textile.textile(input, input_encoding='utf-8', output_encoding='utf-8')
out = open('output.html', 'w')
out.write('<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;charset=utf-8" >\n\n')

This requires a pre-release version of pyTextile which is up on Roberto’s site at As it’s a pre-release version, don’t be surprised if there are bugs.

(This posting not actually produced using pyTextile, although others will be).

related entries: Programming

currently listening to …

14th December 2004 permanent link

Bruckner’s String Quintet played by l’Archibudelli. A little known gem.

I bought the CD full price (€17), which is something I rarely do. I first heard L’Archibudelli playing Mendelssohn’s Octet on the radio about a year ago. I was hugely impressed. I also already had a disk of the Bach Cello Suites that I really like by Anner Bylsma, who when he isn’t being a member of l’Archibudelli is a well known and highly rated soloist. But their CDs are all full price and never seem to appear in my local discount shops. I have bid unsuccessfully for used copies of this particular one a couple of times on ebay, where in any case it always seems to go for well over 10 euros. Plus postage. Sooner or later you realise that for the amount of time you’re wasting trying to save three or four bucks you might as well just buy the bloody thing and be done with it. I don’t regret a penny of it.

It’s interesting that Bruckner had never heard Beethoven’s late string quartets when he composed this, his only major piece of chamber music(*). These days anybody at all who’s seriously interested in European classical music – let alone anybody actually working as a composer – has probably heard these and every other major piece of the Canon, live and recorded, dozens of times. It’s hard for us to realise how different it was in the nineteenth century, when there were professional live performances only in a handful of major cities, chamber music in particular was mainly intended for private rather than public performance, and late Beethoven was incomprehensible avant-garde weirdness. [Note re: Eric Raymond. Was Beethoven, rather than Schönberg, the “deady genius” who killed classical music?] Was Bruckner any the worse for having what many people now would regard as such a huge hole in his musical education?

Compare Brahms, who famously felt himself in Beethoven’s shadow and probably pored for hours over every note Beethoven ever wrote. “Du hast keinen Begriff davon, wie unsereinem zumute ist, wenn er immer so einen Riesen hinter sich marschieren hört” (“You simply do not understand what it’s like to always hear that giant marching behind you”). Did worrying about Beethoven enable Brahms to write better music than Bruckner? Not in my opinion.

(*) This piece of information comes from the liner notes. This CD has very good liner notes – another reason, along with better sound quality and no DRM, why it’s a better deal to pay €17 for a CD, than €10 for the same thing from somewhere like iTunes. This, being a Sony CD, is one of the rare cases where iTunes might actually have music that I want to listen to. (UPDATE: no) Although I haven’t checked, and wouldn’t be in the least surprised to be wrong)

related entries: Music

fun with ibooks

13th December 2004 permanent link

This is something to add to my list of Possible Things To Do With My Dead iBook. (Others include get it repaired and sell it on ebay; or get it repaired and give it to my parents with an iSight so they can keep an eye on what their grandson is up to, and vice versa.)

Link from Kimbro Staken

related entries: Mac

guest yogablogger

13th December 2004 permanent link

Yannis wrote a long and thoughtful response to my comments on Nancy Gilgoff’s views on ashtanga and Iyengar yoga, and very kindly gave me permission to quote his mail.

It is obvious to me that a lot of the criticism of the Iyengar system from ardent and experienced Ashtangis comes from a place of ignorance not knowledge.

My simplest question to any detractors (and they exist on both sides) is: have you studied both systems with equal love and devotion so you acquire a deeper understanding of both? Competent and devoted Ashtangis toil long and hard on their practice and eventually some of them come to see and feel the nuances, the subtleties and the grace of the system. How many of them have given the same effort and concentration to the Iyengar system before letting the world know of their totally uneducated opinions? (Replace Ashtangis with Iyengar students/teachers and the same attitude correction is needed). So please understand that anything I say in the rest of this email is so because of what I read in the blog post, not because I prefer one system to the other, but because I happen to have studied both to some depth.

[This isn’t, by the way, because they couldn’t do the physical practice as well as modern western yogis. I’ve seen film footage of Indian yogis from the 1930s that is way more impressive than any demonstration I’ve ever seen by a modern western practitioner]

The only such film (1938) I know is the one of Iyengar practicing with Krishnamacharya. Are you referring to the same one? If not which one are you referring to, because I would really want to see it? BTW I have seen Cirque du Soleil artists practice backstage, and have had them in my classes and they can kick butt compared to any anyone that’s ever been. Iyengar himself included. Flexibility and strength wise. Sharath has almost mastered 6th but I have seen them do perfect one arm handstand and variations for 1 hour straight. Yes they did change arms in between. I know it’s not Yoga, but the point I am trying to make is that modern Yogis are probably more adept and talented at the physical practice that any one has ever been. How about a pair of Russian twins that can do salambhasana to viparita salambhasana to handstand for a hundred reps? I have been a witness.

Concerning what Nancy says. I can get you pictures of modern day practitioners that do poses with rounded spines like PK Jois on the blog page. It is incredibly hard to swallow but that’s what he could do at the time the picture was taken. If he could he would have extended more. How many Iyengar classes has Nancy taken in order to understand what Iyengar is teaching? [quite a lot, I gather] A most important comment: “…and clearly don’t care what their postures look like.”  I will come back to that part, because it’s a common theme.

This guy puts it even better: “This eye towards “alignment” is also increased by an attachment and false application of classical form…”

OK for all those out there that are endlessly spouting about alignment and form in the Iyengar system without going to study that darned thing for like 3-4 years at least: Iyengar teachings about alignment come from the inside not the outside. There is no eye for form, there is form as the master has felt it internally and as all of as can feel it if we practice with sincerity and dedication (that’s why the advanced practitioners in the PKJ demo are doing good Iyengar poses, they arrived at the same results from a different path)!  Easiest proof: No mirrors in Iyengar’s studio! How did he come up with what is “correct” form?

Once and for all: Alignment and form are not how you look but how you feel and connect with your body. That is their provenance their present and their future.

Alignment and form feel right and beneficial and open your practice to further comprehension, progress and discovery. The way it looks is a side effect, a sign post that a good teacher can read. Are we confusing bad teachers maybe with bad teachings? To come back to Nancy’s huge mis-understanding, this seems endemic in Ashtangi thoughts: Iyengar yoga is NOT about how poses look! Find a teacher good enough that can explain exactly how and what!

Ergo the poster: “If the student or teacher is looking to create a renaissance inspired form of beauty in order to experience or begin the pose, then he or she is not practicing yoga but posing (ooh pretty).”  Knows not what he is talking about. Yes there is beauty, lots of it. And it comes from the inside. It’s a feeling of opening and grace and freedom that comes after incredible and continuous practice. Same as in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

And it’s not his/her fault. There are uninformed students and teachers on both sides. They just need to stop spouting! Keep with what you know!  

I don’t agree with all of this by any means. In particular I don’t see where I, or Nancy as I quoted/paraphrased her, expressed “criticism of the Iyengar system”. Pointed out that it has different priorities from the ashtanga system, yes – but that’s not the same thing as criticism. I think Yannis raises some interesting points, though, why is why I asked permission to quote him.

Coming soon: a more detailed response to Yannis. Also coming soon: guest yogabloggers Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar, in the form of extracts from a great interview with them by Alexander Medin in the latest issue of Nama Rupa.

related entries: Yoga

ebay ratings

12th December 2004 permanent link

I buy and sell stuff fairly regularly on ebay, but mostly small things: used CDs, photographic accessories. Recently I bought something considerably more expensive.

When I had heard nothing a week after I paid, I emailed the seller. There was a bit of confusion about whether he could find my payment or not but we cleared that up quickly, and then the thing arrived within a day of the promised delivery date, in perfect condition.

So, how do I rate the guy? The delivery did take longer than I originally expected and would have liked, and not finding my payment at first was his fault not mine. Is that grounds for a negative rating, or a neutral one? Ebay ratings matter – which is a large part of why ebay mostly works so well – and I wouldn’t take giving someone a negative rating lightly. This seller clearly wasn’t dishonest or even hopelessly inefficient. I got what I wanted, in perfect condition, at a good price. Do I care that much that his payment tracking system isn’t a model of 100% efficiency? No. And besides, it’s Christmas(*). So, positive rating anyway.

Note for American readers: “Christmas” is an archaic, non-politically-correct term for what I believe you now call “The Holiday Season”. Although, as a non-Christian Anglo-Saxon I suppose I should probably reject the newfangled Christian hijacking of my traditional heritage, and refer to it as “Yuletide”.

jack and the wooden spoon

12th December 2004 permanent link

Sunday Family Life Vignette: Maria and I are having dinner in the kitchen. Jack has finished his dinner and is watching Jungle Book in the living room. Or so we think. Jack comes running into the kitchen, grabs a wooden spoon from the sink and runs back out. I decide I should go and see what he’s doing with it. What he’s doing with it is trying to spoon spilt soil back into one of his mum’s plant pots. For which he clearly deserves a big hug.

I figure this is well above a chimpanzee level of reasoning, both in terms of understanding cause and effect (soil spilt -> mum not pleased) and premeditated tool use.

UPDATE: Brian Micklethwait comments on the rights and wrongs of bringing up one’s kids in public.

pre-natal yoga

11th December 2004 permanent link

I am practicing an advanced pre-natal yoga technique at the moment. It’s not because I’m pregnant; it’s far more embarrassing than that.

I fell out of headstand on Wednesday. This happens quite rarely these days – so rarely that I’ve got out of the habit of checking that I have a safe drop zone if it does happen. I was in the gym at work, and I hit my back on the corner of a weights bench. Hard. Now I have a big bruised swelling two inches to the left of my coccyx (and not, thank god, right on it).

I’ve found I can still do most of my yoga practice, but one of the things I can’t do is lie on my back to relax at the end. Fortunately my guru Maria told me that at her pre-natal yoga class the advanced (third trimester) students were taught to relax lying on their sides – otherwise the weight of the baby would be too much strain for their backs. It also works if you have a huge bruise on your butt.

Readers should be thankful that this posting is not illustrated.

related entries: Yoga

photography links

10th December 2004 permanent link

Lynn Sislo links to some great pictures by Jim Nilsen

And an interview with The Master, Henri Cartier-Bresson, not long before his recent death.

related entries: Photography

computer security

7th December 2004 permanent link

Very good article on security – why Macs aren’t as secure, and Windows isn’t as egregiously insecure, as Mac users like to think – on drunken blog

related entries: Mac

epson r800 notes – the price of ink

3rd December 2004 permanent link

I’m delighted with the colour prints from my Epson R800. Haven’t worked out how to consistently get decent black & white from it yet, but I haven’t really had time to experiment. Here’s the state of the ink after just over a hundred 6x4s and a few A4 prints:

Epson ink levels

As you can see, the inks are being used at very different rates, and I’m clearly in my Magenta-Cyan Period.

There’s another big print job coming up in preparation for our Christmas visit to Maria’s family in Russia, and I didn’t want to run out of ink in mid-batch. It was clearly time to stock up.

If you’re reading this in the States and you think Epson ink & paper are expensive, you’ll feel much better if you look at European prices. An ink cartridge for an R800 is $12.95 at Adorama; the offers on start at €15.69 for the genuine article. A euro is $1.33 at the moment, so that’s $20.82 – 60% more expensive. (Quoted prices in Europe always include sales tax at 16%, and quoted prices in America don’t. So OK, only nearly 50% more).

I don’t want to have to go through this whole painful feeling-like-I’m-being-ripped-off-or-worrying about-orders-arriving-from-America experience again too soon, so I decide to get four magentas and cyans and two or three of everything else: total 23 cartridges. Adorama want $48 to ship 23 cartridges from America; the guy who’s already 60% more expensive on wants €80 to ship them from somewhere in Germany. So bugger him. In total I would save €130 by ordering from Adorama. There might be an unknown amount of customs duty to add to that, but I still look likely to come out ahead.

As it turns out, the box from Adorama arrives in three days with no customs charges. UPDATE: no it doesn’t. A week later an invoice arrives from UPS for €69 customs duty and sales tax. So I’m still ahead of the game, but nowhere near as much as I thought I was.

I notice this huge price difference seems to be an Epson thing; Hewlett Packard(*) inks are only slightly more expensive here than in the States. And I presume it is Epson’s fault – if it were possible to make a profit selling them at the American price in Europe somebody would.

(*) So with the €130 I just saved I could buy an HP7660 with a greyscale cartridge and not have to faff about trying to get decent black & white photos out of a colour printer. I would just need to convince Maria that I have a legitimate need for three printers – colour photo, black & white photo and a laser for letters, seems perfectly reasonable to me – and find space for it in the fenced-off corner of the living room that is my toddler-safe studio.

related entries: Photography

my right knee, part two

2nd December 2004 permanent link

A story of hubris, yoga and the anatomy of the human knee. By request, and because Gwendoline Hunt makes an appearance in part three … Part Two: The Anatomy Of The Human Knee

In Part One: Hubris we left Alan in the summer of 1984, battered and broken on the ground at the bottom of a climb he really should not have been attempting that day. The broken left wrist healed quite quickly. The right knee, which had been diagnosed with strained ligaments, didn’t.

Fast forward ten years.

I could run. I studied karate for a few years with no knee trouble except that I had to be careful trying certain high side kicks. Climbing and hillwalking were no problem at all. But walking on pavements hurt. Anything over a mile or so and the knee started to swell and throb. Which itself, you might think, was not so terrible for a man – a good excuse not to go shopping. Better still, it was at its worst in cold, damp autumn weather. Praise the lord, no Christmas shopping.

But it wasn’t funny, in fact, and it wasn’t getting any better. More alarming: there was a lump growing out of the side of the knee that was so hard it felt like bone. I wanted to be able to walk around town, and I didn’t want extra bones growing out of the side of my knee. Unfortunately the wonderful British health service doesn’t give a damn about patients whose problems aren’t (yet) crippling. Several attempts to get doctors to take an interest in “doctor, my knee aches if I walk on pavements a lot” failed. At one point I had a GP [family doctor] who was a runner himself and should have known something about taking knee injuries seriously, but he didn’t give a damn either.

I decided, finally, that I was going to have to do something about it. A friend in my climbing club said he knew a good sports physiotherapist who worked with the national kayak team and would definitely take injuries from a climbing accident seriously, even if they were by this time ten years old. I booked an appointment. I arrived. “Take your trousers off and sit on the couch, please”, he said. He was doing something at his desk, several metres away on the other side of the room. He turned round.

“You’re going to need surgery for that”.

Closer inspection confirmed the several-metres-away instant diagnosis. The hard lump was a cyst that had probably formed around a tear in the outer edge of the meniscus. It was forcing the outer edge of the knee joint apart – but the serious problem, he said, was the inner edge of the joint which was therefore being pinched together. If it wasn’t dealt with I would have arthritis within five years. He arranged for me to see his friend, a top knee surgeon, who agreed and booked me in for an arthroscopy. An arthroscopy is one of those small-scale knee operations where they insert a fibre optic camera through a tiny incision, have a look what’s actually going on in there and fix it with tiny miniature instruments and minimal trauma.

I woke up. Sure enough, I had two tiny, barely visible incisions, one on each side of the knee. And a big three inch scar up the outside of my leg, where they had decided the tiny miniature instruments were futile and attacked the cyst with industrial scale digging and drainage equipment. At least it didn’t hurt.

What they don’t tell you after a knee operation is that the general anaesthetic may have worn off, but your leg is still stuffed full of local painkillers. After a few hours they wear off too. Then it hurts.

After a while it stops hurting. It seemed like a good idea to get back to moving and using the leg as quickly as possible, so I was swimming within a few weeks and climbing again – carefully – within a couple of months. And the knee was somewhat better, the swelling was gone. But autumn came, and it still ached.

I went back to the original physiotherapist. This time he referred me to his partner who was the team physio for Manchester City Football Club, and therefore knew a lot about knees (kayakers, I presume, are better at hurting their shoulders). His theory was this: there is a structure called the ilio-tibial band, which is a strip of tendon that runs down the outside of the leg and stops the knee from collapsing outwards. The surgeon would have had to cut through the ilio-tibial band in order to get to the cyst in my knee; the physio suspected the problem I now had was that the scar in the ilio-tibial band hadn’t healed well and was possibly compressing some nerves in that area. If that was the case, though, he said there honestly wasn’t much he could do for me. He gave me a course of ultrasound treatment, some general exercises to strengthen and stabilise my knee, and taught me some stretches that were supposed to work on the ilio-tibial band to some degree. They maybe helped a bit.

iliotibial band iliotibial band

Pictures courtesy of a website about iliotibial band friction syndrome – which is apparently a common problem for runners, but it’s not what I had

And there we left it. I had had the best treatment that western surgery and sports physiotherapy had to offer. My knee was somewhat better than it was before, and livable with but by no means perfect. It was better than having arthritis at the age of forty, but still quite disappointing really.

related entries: Yoga

learning tabla

2nd December 2004 permanent link

Tyler Cowen still harbours hopes of learning Indian classical music in this lifetime. I already have more than enough to do this time round, but learning tabla is definitely on my “if there is reincarnation” to-do list.

I mentioned this to an Indian colleague who said “my roommate in Bangalore plays tabla. All the time”. It didn’t sound like he thought this was an entirely positive thing.

related entries: Music

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