alan little’s weblog archive for february 2006

road safety announcement

28th February 2006 permanent link

There is too much road safety these days.

Barely have Jack and I gone twenty yards down the street before it occurs to me that Jack is wearing on his head his green woolly hat that Babushka knitted for him, and the hood of his anorak – Russian mothers take keeping children warm in winter very seriously, and I would be in big, big trouble were this not the case – but his head is an awfully long way from the ground on this, his first ever bike ride; and even though the bike can’t fall over as it has training wheels, he could fall off it.

Back we go then to the house for his bike helmet.

I never wore a bike helmet when I was a kid, and I don’t think it ever occurred to either me or my parents that I should. I have faint memories of my first venture on a bike with training wheels – our house was on a hill, so I went (was sent, presumably) down to the street at the bottom of the hill where I could practice on the flat. I have no memory of either of my parents being there; I presume one of them was in fact, and I just don’t remember because I was focused on trying to get the bike to go.

The first time I definitely remember wearing a bike helmet was when I came to Bavaria and started mountain biking at about the age of forty. I think I may have hade one in my thirties when I used to engage in the insanely dangerous activity of commuting by bike in British rush hour traffic in Manchester – compared to which forty miles per hour round hairpin bends down gravel trails in the Alps is a walk in the park – but I can’t remember for sure. Presumably because of all the cranial injuries I sustained whilst cycling without a helmet as a child.


28th February 2006 permanent link

Meandering towards a Tuesday Family Life Vignette.

if you want to get things done, you positively have to understand at any given point in time what is the most important thing to get done right now and if you're not doing it, you're not making progress

Says Joel Spolsky – a quote that has been at the top of my office todolist.txt file for some time now. Joel is talking about managing priorities on software projects. The point has some relevance to life in a broader context, although I think one would have to have an extraordinarily simple life for there to be one identifiable Most Important Thing one could be doing in most situations. As Paul Graham points out:

There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else.

I have also lately been reading Steve Pavlina’s blog. (I think I first came across Steve via a link from Joel.) Steve is also interested in things like priorities and time management, but would very much take the view that whether managing a software project is the right thing for you to be doing, is far more important than whether you are managing your software project effectively. He is right to quite a considerable degree.

Paul Graham, on the other hand, is wrong to a large degree when he rules out as Most Important Things

work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. … there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes-- anything that might be called an errand.

As any Zen practitioner could tell Paul, for an enlightened person whatever you are doing at any given moment, if you are fully focused in that moment and living it without distractions, is the right and Most Important Thing you could be doing. Washing the dishes or sweeping the floor are perfectly good candidates. Sufficiently advanced washing up is indistinguishable from Lisp hacking.

See also the Bhagavad Gita, in which we learn (paraphrasing wildly) that there’s no point fretting about the situation you find yourself in, you are where you are and all you can sensibly do is do your best at the task you find yourself confronted with. This is taught in business schools too, as the concept of Sunk Costs. It also used to be called “Oriental Fatalism” by Victorians who believed it was the reason why Indians – whose ancestors were inventing philosophy and higher mathematics while the Victorians’ ancestors were still running around in the forest painting themselves blue – were a terminally degenerate civilisation doomed to be ruled forever by the descendants of blue-painted barbarians. Which turned out not to be the case.

One learns from yoga asana practice that the whole Bhagavad Gita thing makes complete sense. The point is just to be doing your practice, with whatever limitations you happen to have today, without seeing it as a means towards some distant end goal. This is a tricky one in ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and other outwardly physical-looking forms of yoga, where there are very impressive-looking advanced practices which, if we are honest, are a large part of the attraction to start sutdying these forms of yoga for a lot of people. Having cool-looking advanced practices for students to aspire to, though, is just one of yoga’s clever motivational tricks to encourage tapas – diligent, dedicated practice – and is fine provided you also manage to hang on to an attitude of aparigraha - non-grasping, non-attachment to results – and realise that developing the ability to perform cool-looking advanced tricks is an enjoyable side effect, not the object of the exercise. The object of the exercise being (ok, cessation of the fluctuations on the mind, inner peace, elightenment etc. etc.) to be doing your practice, focused on what you are doing and not worrying about other things. I never have any doubt when I’m doing my yoga practice, that what I’m doing is the right and best thing for me to be doing at that moment in time.

The point I am sneaking up on being: that by any conceivable standard [except Paul Graham’s, who is wrong] there can be no doubt you are doing the right thing, when the thing you are doing is escorting a nearly three year old boy on his first ever bike ride round the block, catching the last half hour of winter twilight as your Boys’ Night activity while mum is away at her yoga class.

related entries: Yoga

a picture a week (3)

28th February 2006 permanent link

manhattan cityscape

Cityscape: Midtown Manhattan, looking north from the Empire State Building, July 2000.

I was in NY to attend a yoga workshop with Pattabhi Jois. Given his sometimes-somewhat fearsome reputation, I wanted to check him out before taking the plunge and going on a big trip to Mysore. His teaching tour in 2000 included New York, so it also seemed like a good chance to get acquainted with that wonderful, wonderful city.

The yoga classes were great. I was single at the time and didn’t know anybody in NY, so outside of class was a bit lonely at times until my friend Jeffrey showed up for the second week – but at least I had plenty of time for wandering about with a camera without having to worry about what anybody else would think. At the time I was only just starting to get to grips with digital imaging, struggling to learn how to scan film, how to drive Photoshop etc. I put some of my yoga class photos online (they were one of the first things on but it was an awful lot of work, and I never got round to doing anything with any of the non-yoga photos from the trip even though I was pretty pleased with some of them. Now I have a family, a more demanding job and much less free time than I had five years ago, but my photo-processing technique is also a lot slicker than it was (and I’m running Photoshop on a much faster computer). And it’s important to still make an effort to keep in touch with the creative process.

related entries: Photography

this is me

27th February 2006 permanent link

Metablog ego-polishing:

Tim Bray links to Dave Sifry talking about the “magic middle”: “blogs with between 20 and 1,000 inbound links. These people tend to have a lot of very specific topical authority and to be, in general, good.” Definitely sounds like me. (Albeit I’m at the low end of the 20 to 1,000 range: 43 when I last checked technorati)

Reminds of the time I was surprised and delighted to read that instapundit only gets about a thousand times as many page views as I do.

(about) a picture a week (2)

24th February 2006 permanent link

southwold beach

Southwold beach, 2nd January 2006. Conclusion reached by my son on his first-ever visit to the seaside: “wet, wet, wet and more wet”. Conclusion reached by me: low-angle winter sunlight on the English east coast can be astonishingly beautiful. I realise I am not the first person to have noticed this, although I may well have been one of the first to test the Nikon D200’s ability to capture it. Test passed with flying colours, I would say.

Another picture of the same scene, however, shows that you can’t get away with shooting straight into the low sun with a thirty year old cheap lens with no lens hood. Not even if that thirty year old cheap lens is the Nikon Series E 100mm, highly rated even by discerning lens connoissuers.

southwold beach

related entries: Photography

upgrading your iPod

19th February 2006 permanent link

I got my wife an iPod for her birthday, then spent a little while showing her how to copy Björk and Kate Bush songs onto it. First I explained a bit about compressed music and the difference between low and high bitrates (minimal-to-none, if you’re our age).

My wife isn’t any kind of audiophile or technical enthusiast. She nevertheless asks why I don’t use the standard white earbuds that came with my iPod Mini, and can she have a go with my Sennheisers? Immediately says they make the white earbuds sound “miserabel”, thus proving the point somebody well-informed made (wouldn’t surprise me if it were Steve Crandall, but I can’t track the link down just now), that above a reasonable minimum bitrate – around 160 AAC – upgrading your headphones makes a heck of a lot more difference than higher bitrates.

She can buy her own Sennheisers.

related entries: Mac Music

treatment house

14th February 2006 permanent link

People email me from time to time to ask if I can recommend any Ayurvedic therapy centres in India. Until now I’ve always had to say no, but not any more.

This man, P. Vijayan of Kerala, generally known as “Vijay”, is an Ayurvedic masseur and one of a handful of true geniuses I have had the privilege of encountering in my life.


Vijay used to work in a beach resort hotel in Kovalam for the winter season when a lot of yoga students are usually there – Kovalam is a popular spot for western ashtanga teachers to teach their own winter classes before they go to Mysore. Outside of Kovalam in winter, though, it was difficult to track him down. I haven’t been in touch with him since I was last there in 2002.

A while ago a friend of mine whose family lives in the same part of Kerala was interested in getting in touch with him – I asked around on a couple of yoga message boards if anybody had his home address, but no joy. Then last week one of his students emailed to let me know he now has his own Ayurvedic therapy centre, Treatment House, in a village near the Kerala state capital Trivandrum. The address:

Center for Kerala Traditional Ayurveda & Vijay’s Foot Therapy

P. Vijayan
Athiralayam, Choozhattukotta
Malayam (p.o.), 695571 Trivandrum
Kerala, South India

Tel +91 471 2280774

I really can’t recommend Vijay highly enough. I should get on with my long-overdue story about how he finally fixed my right knee after surgery and physiotherapy failed.

Added to my yoga links page.

Alan on Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine): I don’t believe Ayurveda’s explanation of how/why the body, and ayurvedic treatments, work. I don’t doubt for a moment that some of the treatements do work, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility that ayurveda has effective treatments for things western scientific medicine can’t deal with yet. It seems unlikely that highly intelligent and dedicated people would have got everything completely wrong for thousands of years. In particular I think the Ayurvedic approach of looking broadly at diet and health as whole has a lot to commend it compared to western medicine’s tendency to look for technological quick fixes for individual problems and ignore the bigger picture.

related entries: Yoga

a picture a week (1)

12th February 2006 permanent link

old yoga shala, mysore

This is the room in Mysore where Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar – probably the most famous yoga teachers in the world today – studied in the 1930s as young men with their teacher, T. Krishnamacharya. Another highly respected senior yoga teacher, BNS Iyengar, also a former Krishnamacharya pupil, still has his yoga school in some upstairs rooms in the same building.

Russell has been visiting here lately.

related entries: Photography

freedom of speech

10th February 2006 permanent link

support Denmark

I hardly ever write about politics here, because I mostly find it uninteresting and depressing. Politicians in democracies generally do stupid things for utterly dishonest motives. The likelihood of them ceasing to do so in the foreseeable future is pretty much nil, but the alternatives that been tried have turned out to be far, far worse. Not worth thinking about any more than I have to.

But some things are Important, and one of those is freedom of speech, and there comes a point when when it’s time to stand up and be counted. Freedom of speech includes freedom to ridicule religion.

That particular freedom was one of the last and hardest won. I can remember prosecutions for blasphemy in England in my lifetime, and I do not want to see them again.

Here are online Dane Flemming Funch on the Danish cartoons controversy, and David Foster of chicagoboyz on the British government’s horrific Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and similar repressive measures that look likely to be introduced in Europe. The Support Denmark logo is courtesy of Davids Medienkritik.

Full disclosure: my personal track record of supporting freedom of speech is not unblemished. In my youth I had a hazy concept that fascists, then to be found in England in the form of the National Front, might have some kind of abstract right to vent their filth quietly in private. I was much clearer on them not doing so in large numbers on the streets of my home town. I never personally threw bricks at them or the police, but nor did I strongly disapprove of the people around me who did.

This guy is right (link via Brian Tiemann). The Swedish right wing organisation whose website has been taken down by politically correct cowards in the Swedish government may (or may not – I know nothing about them) be just as obnoxious as the British National Front of the 1970s was, and wrong about most things. That in no way detracts from their right to publish the cartoons.

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Arguments for self censorship to avoid offense are arguments in favor of surrendering our liberty.

Dennis Dale

Anyway. Jesus, Muhamed and Krishna walk into a bar …

a photo a week

6th February 2006 permanent link

If it’s worth taking time to look at other people’s photos, it’s worth making an effort to do something with my own too. Since I bought my Nikon D70 in the summer of 2004, my entire lifetime’s creative output up to that point, in the form of thousands of slides & negatives, has been locked in a cupboard while my film scanner sits next to my Mac gathering dust. Time to start doing something with them. So, New Year’s Resolution: from now on, A Photo A Week.

related entries: Photography


6th February 2006 permanent link

And then you go to the galleries and museums. You look at those fine books on photography and you see what the masters did long before you knew the difference between Tri-X and Ektachrome. Will you ever shoot a better picture than those Cartier-Bresson street scenes of the 1940s? Will you ever come near the intensity of a Gene Smith reportage? You discover that any imaginable situation has beeen photographed already - the moment of birth and the split second of death, desperation and joy, man on the moon and life in the womb.

Now they are working on computers that will store every photograph that exists in the world. You want a picture of spear-fishing in Surinam? Push the right buttons and you'll see it in milliseconds. The world on magnetic disks wll be right at our fingertips. Why bother to send a photographer all the way to South America? Why bother to go out into the heat and cold of the real world and take even more pictures, adding to the millions that exist already, stored away in the electronic maze? Will photography eventually make itself obsolete through overproduction?

… it takes a lot of courage (or arrogance) for any photographer to go out again and again taking even more pictures to add to the ever-growing abundance of photography

That prescient circa 1980 quote from Munich born, New York resident photojournalist Thomas Höpker has been at the top of my old writing-about-photography page for ages. But I wasn’t particularly familiar with Höpker’s work, so when I saw that the Munich City Museum is showing a fifty year retrospective I went to check it out.

Not the most amazing photo exhibition I’ve ever seen, but some pretty damn fine stuff. You can see a formal web portfolio of Höpker’s work at Magnum Photo, and an informal one at google image search.

One thing that strikes me about some of the older photos – blacks & white street photos of kids in Germany in the fifties and sixties – is “oh my god, that’s me”. My brother and sister and I were little kids on a cobbled street with terraced houses in the sixties – did we really look that old-fashioned? My home town hadn’t been heavily bombed in the war, unlike the ones photojournalists generally liked to take pictures of in those days; but my Dad remembered and could tell us exactly where each of the few bombs did fall (those having been the exciting bits of his childhood).

Once again I learn that there is a huge difference between seeing a real photographic print, big and properly lit, and seeing even a good reproduction in a book. The museum had the book of the show for sale, which even included some very impressive pictures that weren’t in the show, but the ones that were looked so flat and lifeless in a book compared to the “real thing” on the gallery wall that I didn’t bother. (As usual, there’s a good chance I probably will buy the book in a few months time when I see it somewhere remaindered, and my memories of what the “real thing” looked like have faded)

When you’re a parent of a small child you learn to be very assertive about needing and taking time for yourself. I was in town with my son, shopping for my wife’s birthday present, when I saw that this exhibition was on. Hmm. Good photo exhibition. I’m going. And although I would much prefer to go with my wife than alone, there’s no way I’m willing to try to look at something like that with a three year old in tow. My wife is away on business this week, so I decided I was entitled to a bit of preemptive battery charging before three days as a single dad and awarded myself Sunday morning off from husband-and-father duties.

Only a couple of hours though, so: into the museum. Straight to the photos, glancing neither to the left nor to the right at other exhibits. Look at photos. Museum coffee shop looks tempting afterwards, but if I do then I won’t have time for yoga practice before my friend’s birthday party in the afternoon. (Nearly all my [remaining] friends have small children too, so social events tend to start early) So no coffee: straight home, mat out, practice.

Arrived home to find the rest of my family limping around complaining about their bruised backs having had a huge sledge crash. Shit happens.

related entries: Photography

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