alan little’s weblog archive for december 2005

a case in point

20th December 2005 permanent link

A couple of weeks ago I had a general moan about people wasting my time with multiple different versions of their RSS feeds. Today, a case in point: Martin Geddes announces to me in bloglines that:

… this RSS 1.0 feed is no longer supported. You may upgrade to my RSS 2.0 or Atom based feeds instead.

Martin seems to think I (a) know or care which version of his feed I was subscribed to in the first place, and (b) now have time to go fiddling around subscribing to other versions. He is completely wrong on both counts. I am subscribed to the RSS 1.0 version (apparently) because it was the one I picked at random from the list of several different feeds Martin irritated me with when I first subscribed. And I am scanning bloglines over breakfast, two days before we fly to England for a family Christmas with my parents, before which it looks like I have two days of strenuous firefighting ahead of me at work to ensure my project will still be in something like a viable state when I come back. Anybody who thinks I am about to spend time at this point faffing about in bloglines in order to be able to continue reading their blog is deeply mistaken and has just lost a reader.

As Tim Bray has been saying lately, RSS feeds will not become mainstream until people start showing more respect for their readers’ valuable time and pack this sort of nonsense in.

I have one feed, which is in RSS 2.0. If I ever feel like putting the effort in to switch to Atom (which I can’t see any compelling reason why I would) there will still be only one of it and it will still be available at the same address.

UPDATE: Martin is not only interesting and well worth reading if you have any interest in telecommunications politics and policies – as I do, since I work for a telco. He is also willing to admit when he is wrong and change his mind.

yoga links

18th December 2005 permanent link

A while ago I linked to a very interesting article about the health benefits of diaphragm breathing by Kelly McGonigal. Last week I noticed whilst checking links in and from my site that it had gone missing. I wrote to Kelly asking if there was any chance of her putting it back; she replied very promptly and politely, saying not just yet because she’s working on a bigger & better version. Fair enough. I will point to it again when it reappears.

UPDATE: Lianne at yogalila points to an archived copy of the original essay.

Meanwhile the rest of Kelly’s website is well worth a look. In particular she is interested in serious research on the health benefits of yoga – regular readers know that I am too, and I have subscribed to Kelly’s newsletter. (She’s a babe too)

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to …

16th December 2005 permanent link

White face,
black shirt,
white socks,
black shoes,
black hair,
white Strat,
bled white,
dyed black

For no apparent reason, Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent has been stuck in my mind every time I’ve been anywhere near a record shop for a while now, even though I think I probably last heard it circa 1978. Ian Dury’s work, dating as it does from the pre-CD era and he now being no longer alive and not quite as famous as some of his contemporaries who are, seems to be hard to find on CD. (iTunes Music Store? Don’t be silly)

Maria disapproves of me buying CDs, on the [entirely legitimate] grounds that I have hundreds already, most of which I hardly ever listen to. But yesterday Jack and I were in town shopping for her Christmas present and Jack fell asleep in his pushchair (shopping for Girl Stuff is exhausting). Going into the subway would have woken him up, so my clear duty as a responsible father was to keep shopping.

As luck would have it we were near, my current favourite second hand CD shop, and they had a copy of The Best Of Ian Dury And The Blockheads with Sweet Gene Vincent at Track Three. They wanted ten euros for it. I thought about whether it was really worth it for a song I remember fondly from a quarter of a century ago? I might not even like it now. On the other hand, ten euros just to stop the bloody thing jumping into my mind whenever I go anywhere near a shop might be a good investment. If I find I really don’t like it any more I can always sell it on ebay.

So? Worth every f*cking penny! We got both kinds of music, rock and roll!

related entries: Music

i am impressed

14th December 2005 permanent link

James Robertson is clearly very good indeed at his job. I have posted here twice about perhaps-not-wholly-positive experiences with VisualWorks Smalltalk; both times, without any prompting from me, he has found the postings and responded in an entirely constructive and non-critical manner.

The second one was when I found that VisualWorks parsed my large iTunes library file on my Powerbook at about the same speed as python’s not-very-impressive default XML parser, and significantly more slowly than elementtree, which by general consensus is probably the fastest pure python XML tool.

That gave rise to a still-ongoing comment saga on James’s blog, in which several helpful, polite, apparently well-informed Smalltalk enthusiasts are concerned about my disappointing test result and earnestly trying to find out why it might be, without anybody in any way appearing to flame me personally.

What I have learned so far from this:

  1. My Smalltalk code wasn’t doing anything obviously stupid (I would hope not, since it was based closely on the first example on Cincom’s “How To Do XML With VisualWorks Smalltalk” page). It might be slightly slower than James’s version, but certainly not enough to account for the difference in our test results.
  2. Other people seem to be able to get XML files of a similar size to mine parsed considerably faster on similar hardware. They are reporting parse times well under a minute against my three minutes – comparable with the pure python version of elementtree, although still nowhere near cElementTree’s 3 to 4 seconds. These are of course not my file – which I have now sent to a couple of people to see how they get on with it. UPDATE: apparently on James’s Mac Mini my file loads and parses in 61.7 seconds. Roughly comparable machines – 1.25 Ghz versus my Powerbook’s 1GHz (and a faster frontside bus), but 256 MB versus my 512MB – so clearly something wrong with my test setup.
  3. There are two versions of VisualWorks Smalltalk that run on the Mac, a native OS X one and an X11 one. The current native OS X version, which is what I was using, is known to be slow (fix due soon, apparently). James can load and parse my file in 20.6 seconds on his Wondows box.

So it looks like Chris Petrilli was right about Smalltalk performance after all. Even using a notoriously slow version of the Smalltalk VM that is overdue for replacement, it’s still about on a par with the fastest pure python parser.

Far more important than all that from the point of view of James’s job, though, is this: if this is the level of support somebody gets when they are just dabbling with the non-commercial version, what must the paid support be like? Based on this experience I have to say I would be seriously considering VisualWorks Smalltalk if I had free choice of development tools for a significant commercial development(*). (Sadly there is no immediate prospect of me finding myself in that situation). Commercial development tools can’t be an easy sell in these days of ubiquitous high quality open source languages, and VisualWorks isn’t cheap if you’re not an investment bank, but I certainly begin to see how it could be worth it.

(*) Unless the project crucially depended on being able to crunch large XML files very fast, in which case python with cElementTree would still be clearly the right tool for the job.

related entries: Programming

fencing the commons

13th December 2005 permanent link

Every couple of months I look in the logs of and, among other things, worry about the number of bad links in there and decide to do something about them. What I did about them this time was write a link checker and let it loose on the site.

As of last night there are 3,585 internal links within, counting both pages and links within pages, 49 of which are bad. Well done me – that’s not a bad level of output, and nearly 99% correctness, for one man in five years of his spare time, during which he also managed to have major adventures travelling the world, and get married and start a family.

The entropy level for external links is much higher. One external site I have a lot of links to is the old yahoo ashtanga yoga discussion group; these all now redirect to a yahoo logon page. I worried five years ago that this might happen:

Usenet had advantages over yahoo clubs. It was a decentralised, distributed system - anybody could set up a news server and carry messages from whatever newsgroups they chose, so it wasn't dependent on the whims of one company, whereas yahoo could theoretically choose to delete or deny access to message archives any time they felt like it.

Yahoo haven’t deleted or denied access to anything, nor do I think it’s particularly likely that they would. They’re not even charging money for access – registration for a yahoo account is free as long as you’re prepared to put up with looking at adverts. They have made it unlikely that many people are going to read any of the things I laboriously linked to, some of which may still have some value. (I stopped using that discussion group years ago, but that was because the noise-to-signal ratio got too high, not because of anything yahoo did)

I don’t have anything in principle against yahoo’s behaviour here. They are a commercial organisation, and I freely chose to put my time and effort into writing and linking to things on their servers without ever (as far as I can remember) paying them a penny for the resources I was using, knowing that they were bound to try to make money from it somehow sooner or later. Good luck to them; I have nothing whatsoever against a couple of early web enthusiasts having been in the right place at the right time, having a good idea and becoming billionaires as a result. People have become rich doing far worse things.

Nevertheless, I’m old enough to remember and be a little bit nostalgic for the (very end of the) pre-web Internet and the early days of the web, when most of the interesting things were being done for free by idealistic volunteers. Nowadays the question uppermost in everybody’s minds is “how are we going to pay for/make money from this?”. It may look ugly at first sight, but this is actually a more honest question than the number one question from the good old days which was often “how are we going to misappropriate (mostly university) resources paid for by other people’s (mostly the taxpayer’s) money, in order to do what we feel like doing with them instead?”

In related news, yahoo bought last week. Congratulations and good luck to the people behind, who had a good idea, implemented it very well and thus provided a useful service to a lot of people, including me. I do hope yahoo don’t start slapping advertisements all over my precious links or charging me money to see them, even though in principle I admit they would be perfectly within their rights to do so.

UPDATE: a little oh, shit moment this evening when my script for backing up my links reports a socket timeout error. Oh no, they disabled the API already! No they didn’t – the second attempt works. I’m glad I have that backup script though, and will be using it more often.

UPDATE UPDATE: (19th December) a week later, is down for a day. Power outages happen, though, and being bought by yahoo a week or two earlier would probably have helped in this particular situation if it meant the service had already been transferred into one (or more) of yahoo's proper industrial grade server rooms.

xml races (4)

13th December 2005 permanent link

James Robertson is surprised that I timed VisualWorks Smalltalk’s XML parser at not much faster than python’s built in one, and finds he can parse a 13 MB xml file in 44.7 seconds on his Mac Mini, which has a little faster cpu but less memory than my Powerbook. Given that James knows what he is doing with Smalltalk, whereas I used to a little bit years ago and have only just started dabbling again, let's assume his code:

    content := 'feeds.xml' asFilename contentsOfEntireFile.
    parser := XMLParser new.
    parser validate: false.
    Time millisecondsToRun: [parser parse: content readStream]

… is more efficient than mine (although I did include opening and reading the file in all the other tests too):

    XML.XMLParser processDocumentInFilename: "filename" 
        beforeScanDo: :p | p validate: false.

… then that would put VisualWorks Smalltalk on a par with or a bit faster than the fastest pure python XML parser, but still an order of magnitude slower than python-augmented-with-C.


related entries: Programming

the dance of shiva

9th December 2005 permanent link

In a pratyahara-deficient moment in my yoga practice I noticed that four-armed Shiva appeared to be in the room practicing with me:

Shiva shadow

You have to be really advanced, or practicing facing a mirror with with a window behind you at midday in winter, for this to happen. I could of course quip cynically that a reflection of a shadow of a true yoga practice is about all I will ever aspire to; but it wouldn’t be fair or true, so I won’t.

related entries: Yoga

who does the asking?

6th December 2005 permanent link

Writing about yoga courses in convents reminds me that months ago I meant to write a longer response to Michael Blowhard’s comment on vedanta:

I've had many experiences with Hinduism, yoga philosophy, and Buddhism when it was as though the speaker or writer were inside my head, discussing far better than I ever could the questions my own mind spends much of its energy chewing over. These religion/philosophies speak to me intuitively as much as they fascinate me intellectually.

To which I replied in a comment:

Hear hear. One of the only times in recent years I can remember being absolutely rapt, fascinated, hanging on every word in a lecture - even wishing I had a tape recorder with me instead of relying on notebook and recollection, which have always served me well enough in the past - was a philosophy course I attended with BNS Iyengar, a senior Indian yoga teacher (not *the* famous elderly Indian yoga teacher Mr Iyengar, the other one. Iyengar is a common name)

This is the gentleman:

BNS Iyengar

BNS Iyengar

Now, in another of his meditation postings, Matt Webb finds himself thinking:

This isn't going to make much sense: It's like there were two "me"s. One was doing the breathing and the quietness, and the other was churning away with thoughts just as much as any hour of the day, only saying things like "oh, that's good, good breathing there".

It absolutely makes sense. In one of those meditation classes, Mr Iyengar told us to focus on visualising a candle flame and “if thoughts come, ask them to leave”. A simple little phrase, but it turns your head inside out a bit if you then suddenly think, “but wait a minute – who’s doing the asking?”. The sudden realisation that there is a me who isn’t just whatever stream of semi-random noise happens to be passing across the surface of my consciousness – so who or what is that, am I, then? This might not be an awareness-altering concept for you, dear reader, but it was for me, and it seems to be the central thing people learn in the beginning stages of all forms of meditative practice: the ability to observe oneself and one’s reactions to things with some degree of detachment, to not be completely caught up all the time in the citta vrtti, the fluctuations of the mind.

Pattabhi Jois, the yoga teacher I studied with in India, famously likes to say “yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory”. No amount of abstract thinking or reading philosophy texts is going to change anything if you don’t get your mat out and focus your mind on your practice on a daily basis. So prior to that course I deliberately avoided all yoga theory & philosophy, and just got on with doing the practice and seeing what happened. I had decided for various reasons of my own that I had lived too much of my life up to that point lost in thinking and verbalising and abstractions, that that in many ways hadn’t done me much good, and that it would be good for me to do something differently. It seemed to work quite well for a couple of years, but then Mr Iyengar convinced me it was time to start catching up on the 1% theory. I went out and bought TKV Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga, which is a fine book containing among other things Desikachar’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. If one day I ever finish studying and absorbing that (it’s only been four years so far) I may move on to other texts.

It’s interesting to see two senior teachers of the same form of yoga with such different approaches. Pattabhi Jois’s approach is very much to teach students the physical aspects of the practice, encourage them to practice those diligently and let the breath control, mind control, meditative aspects arise naturally out of that over time. He does occasionally come out with nuggets of theory & philosophy wisdom in front of groups of students, but doesn’t teach anything like formal philosophy classes. His English, in any case, is limited.

Mr Iyengar speaks much better English, and also very much gave the impression that the physical practice is just matter of “ok, here are some asanas we have to do in order to be able to sit properly. Good. Now we can get onto the interesting stuff”. Which for him seems to be philosophy and meditation classes. (He can teach the physical stuff if he feels like it. I know this because I know a couple of his western students who have quite impressive advanced practices)

Now I think of it, this was also the yoga course where I finally learned how to approach lotus position safely, after two years of hurting my knees by doing it wrong. All in all a week well spent.

related entries: Yoga


2nd December 2005 permanent link

I wrote to Matt Webb, mentioning the time I attended a yoga course in a convent and talked to one of the sisters about yoga and Christian mystical traditions:

Yoga is clever. I once attended a yoga course that was hosted in an Anglican convent in England, and got talking to one of the sisters. I asked her whether she thought it was incongruous for a course in yoga – rooted as it is in Hindu traditions – to be taking place in a Christian setting. She said she didn’t find it so. Christianity has meditative, mystic traditions that are basically the same thing, but in Christianity there is no help or advice on how to go about pursuing meditation, or “contemplative prayer”, in a systematic way. You’re just supposed to sit down, still your mind (how?) and be open to grace. The sister said what she found fascinating about buddhism and yoga is that they, over several millenia, have assembled a whole collection of tricks and techniques for helping a still and open mind to happen, different ones of which work for different people.

Then I found this in an interview with Buddhist monk Shinzen Young that Matt links to:

nowadays there's an enormous dialoguing and cross-fertilization that goes on between the Christian contemplative tradition and the Buddhist one, simply because we recognize each other's similarities. The thing I particularly like about Buddhism is that it has a step-by-step methodology that's very technique oriented, and gives you something to do, almost like a computer program, like a flow chart. That appealed to me very much. But by and large, around the world meditative traditions are basically dealing with the same material, so you come up with similar type experiences. So although what I say will be specifically out of experience on the Buddhist path, much of it is applicable to Christian, Islamic, Jewish mystical traditions also.

Matt says he’s interested in the Christian contemplative prayer thing, but I can’t help him any further with that since I’m not a Christian. It’s just something I heard talked about a few times and filed under Moderately Interesting.

related entries: Yoga

rss – nobody cares

2nd December 2005 permanent link

Note to authors of blogging software: nobody except you cares about the fact that there are multiple versions of RSS and Atom. When I want to subscribe to something in bloglines, as I did this morning with interesting guy Avi Bryant’s latest project, I do not wish to be asked to choose between five apparently identical feeds using different versions of RSS. Just pick one and use it. Support many different ones if you feel you really must; allow the blog author to pick a different one, or more than one, if you mistakenly think he or she cares; but don’t ask the reader (me) to pick between five identical-looking versions with different meaningless names just to read somebody’s blog.

You could use meaningful names, too: titles_and_summaries_only_dont_bother.xml, full_text_read_this_one.xml – or, in Jim Henley’s case, titles_and_summaries_only_and_months_out_of_date_too.xml.

Thank you.

UPDATE: a case in point

related entries: Programming

bad daddy

1st December 2005 permanent link

A Thursday Family Life Vignette.

Jack didn’t want his fruit juice at breakfast this morning, so I knocked it back while I was clearing away the dishes. Of course you know what happens next in this story: ten minutes later he decided he wanted it after all.

Pray that you never have to look a thirsty two year old in the eye and admit that you drank his juice, and there isn’t any more in the house.

This particular cloud’s silver lining is that today is the day our external supplier delivers the software for my project. A good day to be on the subway on the way to work knowing that the worst has already happened.

(After a few minutes vigorous protest, which I felt were fully justified in the circumstances, Jack settled for a satsuma)

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