alan little’s weblog archive for january 2004

brian on film music

30th January 2004 permanent link

On film music: a semi-connected string of thoughts and anecdotes triggered by Brian Micklethwait’s thoughts on “how Classical Music lives on in the cinema”.

Brian talks about the use of classical music in film soundtracks. I see clear influences the other way round too. I find a lot of "serious" twentieth century orchestral music by people like Shostakovich and Bartok sounds like film music and basically silly. But then, I'm very rationalist-classical in my musical inclinations and generally have a hard time taking most Romantic music seriously. I freely admit that their chamber music is anything but silly. (As Brian already knows, I am very well aware of the circumstances that forced Shostakovich to operate in this way)

Here's a half-formed Big Thought: film music is a return to musical normality. Throughout most of human history in most societies (including our own), music has mainly been a mood-altering adjunct to other activities, generally religious ceremonies and/or dancing. (Religious ceremonies and dancing having also been much the same thing throughout most of human history). What western classical music has tried to do in the last two hundred years is take music out of the temple, off of the dancefloor and make listening an end in itself, a quasi-religious act in its own right. An interesting experiment that, in the long run, didn't work.

Like Brian, I have classical music playing a lot of the time at home and at work, but I don't often just sit and listen to it and do nothing else. And, as Brian has also pointed out, this is a situation and an audience attitude that all musicians up to and including Haydn and Mozart would have found completely normal. Did Beethoven invent the idea that people should just sit still, shut up and *really* listen? If you're going to ask the audience to behave in such a strange way you should at least write music that's compelling enough to make it worth their while - which is ok if you're Beethoven, a lot less ok when hundreds of lesser composers start thinking they can take the audience's attention for granted.

(For Brian's listening habits see this piece – and while you're about it you should read his entire classical music archive)

The Hollywood studio orchestras of the Golden Age – 1930s to 1950s – were quite possibly the most technically proficient symphony orchestras ever to walk the earth. They had their pick of the world’s best orchestral musicians, America at the time being full of Jewish refugees from the previously-best symphony orchestras in Germany and Austria. I once heard a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 3 about the Warner Brothers house orchestra playing music for cartoons. The music, they said, had to be exactly, to the frame, in synch with the film – i.e. accurate to a 24th of a second. At this point I assumed that they were going to say they would record the soundtrack first then synch the visuals to it. No. They recorded the soundtrack, basically live, in front of a screen with unfinished bits of the film running as the film was being made. Apparently they usually got it exactly right on the first take.

These guys could play “real” music too. The Hollywood String Quartet, whose chamber music recordings are legendary, was a part time ensemble whose members all had day jobs in Hollywood studio orchestras.

A lot of the movie movie soundtracks I’ve been most impressed aren’t derived from classical music but from American folk music of various kinds – by blues, country etc. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar soundtrack to Paris, Texas is the most obvious example that springs to mind – along with, sort of, The Blues Brothers, which doesn’t really count because there the music is the whole point of the film, not just a soundtrack. But I think those two would have to be on any list of “all-time great movie soundtracks”.

Story told to me by my brother, who is both a professional musician and a war movie buff: in the climactic air battle over London at the end of The Battle of Britain, the music changes from stirring patriotic marches to a sudden piece of quite striking modernism. Apparently this bit, Walton’s Spitfire Fugue, is the surviving remnant of an original score by Walton that was commissioned for the entire film and could have been a Shostakovichesque modern masterpiece. But the producers lost their nerve and commissioned something less challenging at the last minute, thus resulting in the actual Battle of Britain score which is also perfectly decent music, but not by any stretch of the imagination a masterpiece.

Update: (google is your friend) the Spitfire Fugue is a different Walton piece. A CD was released in 1999 with both the original Walton Battle of Britain score and the replacement which was by a guy called Ron Goodwin, who seems to have written the scores for most of the classic British World War II flying films. This reviewer likes the Goodwin better than most of the Walton except the bit they actually used; reviewers on amazon were impressed by both. The CD is discontinued. Pity.

Another update: Michael Brooke, in Brian’s comments, points out the huge effect Stanley Kubrick had on the fame of Gyorgy Ligeti by liking his music and using it extensively in 2001 and The Shining. (My knowledge of Ligeti is restricted to having bought a CD of his string quartets in a second hand shop a few years ago and, as far as I recall, never actually listening to it. Perhaps I should)

related entries: Music

photo gallery revamp (2)

29th January 2004 permanent link

On why I hate working with CSS but nevertheless grudgingly accept that it’s on balance not an entirely bad idea.

I’ve just about got the stylesheet for my new-look gallery pages ready after several train journeys and late nights. I really dislike working with CSS: it’s completely unintuitive and getting anything to behave as you want it to requires lots of frustrating trial & error and (if you’re lucky enough not to be on the train at the time) extensive web searching to find out how to do things that should be simple and obvious. At times the temptation to just say stuff it and put everything in html tables, which are conceptually straightforward and work as you expect them to, is overwhelming. But tables are Out (*) so I persisted with CSS because I know it pays off in the long run.

The new look fairly closely copies the look & feel of some of the gallery pages on the Magnum website (always steal from the best!), but I implemented it myself from scratch.

Once you’ve gone through the hours of teeth-grinding frustration and actually have a stylesheet working, it’s worth having. You have a consistent look across all the pages that use the stylesheet without having to do lots of time-consuming and error-prone copying; and you can do fairly major revamps to the look & feel of all the pages just by tweaking the stylesheet. My weblog pages are produced using templates, so the templates are the only html I ever have to edit by hand; but even so, there are several subtly different versions of the template for the main page, for the archives and for individual entries. Even keeping three or four files in synch would be a major pain and would inevitably go wrong sooner or later, so all they contain is a really minimal html skeleton and the real work is mostly done in the stylesheet.

Quite apart from the technical difficulties, I’m also discovering that there’s quite a lot of creative effort involved between having a collection of good pictures, and having a collection of small jpegs with a consistent size and look that I can use as the index to an online gallery.

(*) I make reasonable efforts to build this weblog as standards-compliant xhtml. The main page isn’t valid at the moment, however, because I have an unescaped ampersand – “&” instead of “&” – in a link somewhere, and in xhtml that is a Sin. I’ve checked the text file that the original link is in, and everything is fine there; so somewhere along my production line there is a bug that un-escapes it. Mea culpa. But I really don’t have the time – and frankly don’t care enough – to bother fixing it. The offending link will automatically drop off the bottom of the main page in a month anyway and then I’ll be valid again. For what it’s worth. See also this entertaining rant from Mark Pilgrim on just how little it is, in fact, worth.

related entries: Programming Photography

ecommerce and amazon

27th January 2004 permanent link

Michael Jennings wrote last week on samizdata about how rapidly eCommerce is growing in Britain – a country where buying things in normal shops is notoriously expensive compared to the rest of the world. One of the commenters also made the point that Amazon is in the process of transforming itself away from being a shop and towards being a broker and marketplace.

Which may be true. I’ve bought a few things from amazon “associates”, and it’s certainly a more reliable way of finding rare, obscure stuff than waiting for it to turn up on ebay. A couple of years ago (before I was a father when I could afford such things) I got an out of print first edition by Austrian photographic genius Ernst Haas from a rare book dealer in Australia via Amazon in the US. (Shipped to Germany and arrived in four days – the wonders of globalization).

Hampi sunrise

Another book I wanted was APA Südindien. This is a German travel guide I read while I was in India and was most impressed by. It wasn’t the usual “there are three trains a day to X and the best cheap hotel there is … and … ” (yawn) style of guidebook. (Lonely Planet, I’m looking at you). Instead it had good essays on art and culture, and *marvellous* photographs by David Beatty one of which directly inspired my best Indian landscape photograph.

I saw APA Südindien on the bookshelf in the guesthouse I stayed at in Hampi. I thought about making the guy at the guesthouse an offer for it at the time, but I was trying to travel light and didn’t want another book to lug about with me so I decided I’d just pick up a copy when I got back to Germany … only to find when I got back that it was out of print.

I decided recently I was going to make a concerted effort to get hold of a copy. I don’t have time to even consider trawling second hand bookshops or book fairs, so I tried placing searches with a couple of specialist second hand book search services - one based in England but claiming to be able to do international searches, Booksearch At Hay and one German, Both drew blanks. I also placed an advance order for it used on, but I didn’t really think there was much hope when two specialist book search services had failed. This was about ten days ago; yesterday I got an email from amazon that the book is on its way.

Update 29th January: it arrived the next day, in perfect condition, and the pictures are almost as good as I remembered them.

new mysore weblog

26th January 2004 permanent link

My Mysore Diary, from when I was studying yoga in India two years ago, still gets read a couple of thousand times a month. Which is three to four times the readership of this weblog, but it’s still not exactly hot off the press any more. A couple of days I go I noticed this current Mysore weblog. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but on first impressions it looks well written and interesting.

related entries: Yoga

nama rupa magazine

26th January 2004 permanent link

Issue 2 of Nama Rupa is out; my copy arrived yesterday. In addition to photographs by me (only two this time) it contains:

Kathakali dancer

  • an interview with the yoga teacher I studied with in India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who I will be talking about more in my (coming soon) mini essay on Indian traditional arts – yoga teaching
  • fascinating photos of advanced yoga students republished from a 1941 issue of Time magazine
  • Part Two of Edwin Bryant’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I haven’t read this yet but part one was excellent
  • And (illustrated partly by my photos) an in-depth article on the training of kathakali dancers in Kerala (which sounds like it’s at least as tough as the training of ballet dancers in the west). This is fortunate timing for me, since I’ve already said my Indian traditional arts series would include something on kathakali - despite the fact that I’ve been to a grand total of two performances and really know next to nothing about it.

related entries: Yoga Photography

thoughts on indian traditional arts

22nd January 2004 permanent link

I have a series of postings coming up that have been prompted by weblog dialogue with Brian Micklethwait: firstly his observation that “Photography is one of the great under-discussed influences on Modern Art”. I think he underestimates how underestimated it is. I set out to respond with a comment, but the comment got too long and turned into a posting for my weblog, which then got even more out of hand and turned into a disconnected, rambling and very unfinished heap of notes on my thoughts about Art in general.

Then Brian responded to my off-the-cuff comments about movies: “do art forms have a life cycle, and are movies at the end of theirs?”; and that sent me off into even more broad and unfinished thoughts about what it would actually mean for art forms to have a life cycle, and are creativity and Art-With-A-Capital-A inextricably tied up with originality and innovation? Is that in fact why certain major art forms in the west, such as classical music and high brow literature, seem to be moribund at the moment? Big questions, to which “life cycle” is much too simplistic an answer. I think I will end up mostly agreeing with Brian on a different explanation for what has been wrong lately (i.e. the last two hundred years, approximately) with the arts in western culture. But I haven’t got there yet.

I started thinking about what little I know about arts in a different culture, namely India, where as far as I’m aware people don’t appear to worry so much about that sort of thing. So my long unfocused rambling essay on art-in-general began to turn into a somewhat more focused essay on Indian traditional arts. It was still far too long and nowhere near finished. So I decided a good idea would be to cut it up into pieces and then be disciplined about finishing each piece, publishing it and moving on to the next(*).

So, coming soon: Alan draws grandiose conclusions based on a rather small amount of actual knowledge of the following Indian arts & traditions:

  1. Sculpture and temple architecture
  2. Kathakali dance
  3. Yoga teaching (this one will be the exception in that I do actually know what I’m talking about – which, as everyone knows, is optional on the web but can occasionally be helpful)
  4. Classical music

It may seem like we’re a very long way, at this point, from “the influence of photography on Modern Art”. But I am in fact going there – I’m just going the long way round.

(*) It’s better to publish something than nothing; better to get part-finished things out where people can read and critique them, than to wait forever and not say anything until you (wrongly) think you alone have worked out the ultimate truth – this being another of Brian’s perennial Good Points about why weblogging is an excellent thing from an educational perspective, not to mention being a widely known truth about any kind of creative effort: the Perfect is the enemy of the Good.

related entries: Photography

indian arts – stonecarving

22nd January 2004 permanent link

I met a stonecarver in a temple in India a couple of years ago, Mr. Nagalingesh. I was impressed by his work, so I asked if he would be willing to do a couple of pieces for me on commission – copies of 12th century temple sculptures I had seen and photographed. He declined, for two reasons. One was that he was already very busy with work for temples both in India and abroad – work that was sacred for him and far more important than mere commercial commissions. The other, he said, was that he wasn’t familiar with the 12th century Hoysala style; what he did was Chalukya style, which dates back to around the 8th century AD.

This was a guy who said his family tradition of stonecarving went back seven hundred years and who worked in a style that was about twice as old as that. Although his main work was for temples he had also done commissions for foreign galleries, and had been invited to spend three years as artist in residence at an art school in Chicago but had declined. He preferred to stay in the combined temple and workshop (seventeenth century) that he shared with his brothers in a quiet street on the outskirts of Mysore. He didn’t appear to mind if he was carving the hundred thousandth Chalyuka style Ganesha that had ever been carved.

stone carver's workshop, Mysore
Mr Nagalingesh’s workshop

Various thoughts about this: what Mr Nagalingesh does may not be very original, but there’s no question of whether his work is relevant to a modern audience. As long as anybody anywhere in the world is building or renovating Hindu temples, they will need high quality carvings of Hindu gods. And each one has to be individually carved by hand (although I assume poor people building low budget temples can probably get cast concrete versions if they can’t afford people like Mr. Nagalingesh). Compare this to the situation of western classical musicians – there is no great shortage of people who want to listen to Beethoven symphonies either, but you can hear dozens of great recorded versions of those without ever needing to go anywhere near a concert hall. (And the majority of those dozens of great recorded versions will be thirty years old or more).

Is what he does “Art”? I recall reading a comment somewhere – I think it was in The Age of Kali by the excellent William Dalrymple, but I don’t have the book handy to check – by some western sculptor, that Indian traditional stonecarvers are “mere craftsmen” and not “artists”, because what they do doesn’t involve any innovation or personal expression. This begs a whole lot of very big questions – is “craft” different in kind from “art” and if so, is “art” in some sense more important and valuable? Why? Does an “artist” have to be doing, or at least trying to do, something innovative? (*) If carving the hundred thousandth Chalyuka style Ganesha isn’t a creative act, then is taking part in the hundred thousandth performance of a Beethoven symphony? I assume Mr Western Sculptor if he’s trying to be at all consistent would have to say “no” to both – yet both are presumably very important expressions of their soul and spirit for the people doing them.

What Mr. Nagalingesh does is very similar to what the European gothic artisans that Alice talked about did. Not exactly the same: Mediaeval European cathedral builders were extremely technically innovative, always pushing the limits of what they could do with their materials – less stone, more glass – to produce ever greater glories of space and light. Whereas Mediaeval Hindu temples, although they have superlative sculpture, are uninteresting architecturally. It took the muslim conquests and the arrival of the Mughals for anybody to really start doing anything ambitious with buildings in India. (Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing any arches in old Hindu temples. Did Hindus not have the arch? I asume you would be pretty severely limited in terms of what you could do architecturally with stone buildings without arches. Or perhaps they knew about arches but had religious reasons not to use them in temples?)

(*) My personal answer to these questions would be “hmm, well, maybe yes to a degree” but hedged about with lots of qualifications and statements that it is not clear-cut and self evident, and depends a lot on what you think the role of “art” in people’s lives actually is. I certainly don’t kid myself that my photography is in any way treading new ground in visual expression for mankind as a whole; but it is for me personally, and if anybody else happens to like my pictures too (and wants to buy prints of them) well that’s nice, but not as important as me having found a form of creative expression for myself. On the other hand, things that are (or were at the time) genuinely new and different are more interesting than things that aren’t: I’d sooner see a thousand year old chalyuka carving (which I can if I want to) than one made last week by Mr. Nagalingesh; I'd sooner hear Beethoven improvising on piano (which I can’t, unfortunately) than the two hundredth recording of one of his sonatas.

movies aren’t getting worse

22nd January 2004 permanent link

One of Brian's favourite themes - the web, and weblogging in particular, as learning tools. You say something off-the-cuff: “Nazi Germany was clearly even worse than the Soviet Union”, “movies are clearly getting worse”. Somebody questions this, you think “hmm, maybe it's not so self-evident after all” and you re-examine your assumptions. Which is never a bad thing.

The latest example of this: Brian commented on my off-the-cuff observation that “they don’t make films like that any more” – “do art forms have a life cycle, and are movies at the end of theirs?”. Bruce Baugh replied that “I'm not convinced that much pessimism is warranted", and reeled off a list of great (in his opinion) movies made in the last twenty years or so. Of which I agreed with a few, strongly disagreed with one (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and hadn't seen the majority. And he made me think. Do I really think movies are getting worse?

Fortunately, for this question we have - unusually - a good source of hard quantitative data on the inner workings of Alan's mind, in the form of my ratings on movielens. And plotting rating against the year the film was made gives us this, where 5 = “absolute classic” and 1 = “dreadful”:

alan's movie ratings

What I see here:

So ok, I admit movies aren’t getting worse after all. One less thing to be pessimistic about. Thanks Bruce.

music quotes

21st January 2004 permanent link

Reason dictates that the Buzzcocks can't be nearly as highly influential as they're almost universally touted to be, otherwise today's popular music would be a hell of a lot better than it is.
Richard J. Rosen in Sterophile

Good point.

related entries: Music

on hive minds

21st January 2004 permanent link

On being part of a hive mind: some thoughts on consensus in arts and how, boring though it might seem to people who want to see themselves as avant garde free-thinkers, the consensus on what is good in any well-established art form is generally broadly right. I base this on my own experiences over the last few years with things I don’t or didn’t previously know much about, namely painting, photography and classical music.

A little over a year ago I was in the Kunstforum in Berlin – a new and impressive art gallery with a wonderful collection of Renaissance paintings. Several times I found I would walk into a room full of portraits, have a quick look round and think “well they’re all good, but that one’s amazing”; and then find that one was by somebody really famous like Holbein, and the others were by people I had heard of barely if at all. On the same visit to Berlin, my girlfriend Maria who has a good eye for pictures but knows nothing about any famous photographers, went round an exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs and said “well the ones I particularly liked were …”, and proceeded to reel off a list of Adams’ most famous classic photographs.

Similarly with the Wilhelm Furtwängler recording of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony that I heard recently. I thought it was clearly by far the best performance I had ever heard; half an hour’s research on the newsgroup revealed that I am far from being alone in that opinion.

Even if I really don’t like somebody who is generally acknowledged as a master in some artform, I can often see why other people might think they are so great. I have hardly ever managed to get through a whole novel by Charles Dickens – I find his plots and characters completely uninteresting. But I freely admit he could craft an English prose sentence like nobody else. The opening passage of Bleak House would get my vote for the best beginning ever to a totally boring novel.

It may be that the closer you get to an artform, the more likely you are to appreciate and admire people in it who are slightly off to the side of the main pantheon. In photography, I can look and appreciate the work of the “gods” like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans; but my heroes, the people whose pictures consistently make my jaw drop with amazement, are Raymond Depardon, Harry Gruyaert and Ernst Haas. Who are all famous and highly respected among photographers, but not quite to the same degree as the other three I mentioned. (Of course, photography is such an obscure and unappreciated artform that the average person in the street probably couldn’t name a single “famous” photographer. If they could, it would probably be Ansel Adams)

Finding yourself time after time agreeing with a consensus isn’t terribly exciting, though. Part of what holds me back from writing serious pieces about Art-With-A-Capital-A, (or rather, finishing and publishing them – there is no shortage of half-finished drafts on my laptop’s hard disk) is that I don’t think I have much to say that isn’t already being said rather well by people like Brian, Alice or Michael & Friedrich. That’s not the main issue – which is lack of writing time – but it’s certainly part of it. Nevertheless, coming soon (maybe) on a related theme: a currently half-finished piece on Indian traditional arts and whether originality is actually an important part of creativity or not.

related entries: Photography

not so trivial after all

19th January 2004 permanent link

Just when I’m worrying (again) about writing a steady stream of ever more trivial trivia, Brian Micklethwait comes along, picks up some potentially nontrivial ideas that I touched on very briefly last week but didn’t really have the time or energy to get into properly, and runs with them. Then wonders whether he, too, really has the time or energy to get into them properly. Could be an interesting conversation if either of us ever does.

yet more master and commander

19th January 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray, it seems, is just as much a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s books as I am, and even more impressed with the film. This, I swear, is the last posting on this subject. Until the DVD comes out.

closed for redecorating

19th January 2004 permanent link

I’ve decided it’s time to put some effort into revamping my photo gallery. Having a place to display my pictures was the original purpose of, but that has largely been overtaken by weblogging in the last couple of years. Meanwhile I’ve neglected the gallery pages, and when I look at them now I think they’re not very well presented or organised, and don’t have half the pictures on them that I would like to display. Despite which people still look at them. Whilst inspecting my December logs I noticed that I’m number two on a google search for “Hampi photos”. Not bad considering Hampi is probably the second most famous and visited tourist attraction in southern India after the beaches of Goa (and check out the lady who is number one. Not many pictures there, but they’re interesting). But my Hampi gallery is a rushed selection of maybe about a quarter of what I would like to show, that I threw together in an evening shortly after I got back from India with not much thought to sequence or presentation. It’s time to do something about this. In the last two years I’ve bought a much better scanner, and my photoshop and html/css skills have improved immensely. I should be able to do a much better job now.

Meanwhile I’ve noticed that my weblogging activities over the last few weeks have slipped nto a pattern of publishing even more trivial things than before, while the pile of potentially interesting but perpetually unfinished Big Ideas grows even faster than usual. Perhaps it’s time for a change. So – expect not much weblogging for the next few weeks except (a) announcements of photo gallery updates and (b) cursing and swearing about the horrors of CSS. Hopefully more (a) than (b).

It also occurs to me that there might be potential for actually selling prints a bit more systematically. Despite the sad state of the gallery pages, my pictures themselves are good enough that I get a steady trickle of enquiries about prints and publications. The first pictures I ever put on the web found their way into a newspaper in Australia, and my best magazine gig ever – for a struggling startup yoga magazine that unfortunately couldn’t afford worldly illusions like paying its photographers – also resulted from the editors having seen my website. Maybe if I actually make it clear that prints are for sale, and decide prices up front instead of having to wonder every time whether I’m asking too much or too little, I might get a few more sales. I’d be surprised if print sales ever even covered my hosting costs, but you never know unless you try.

(None of this has ever or will ever match my Photographic Success Of A Lifetime, which was meeting Maria whilst acting as Official Photographer at a friend’s wedding)

related entries: Photography

ego surfing

17th January 2004 permanent link

Anybody with an interest in what I used to look like in the days when I did a lot of rock climbing, could head over to my old climbing club’s website and check out this picture by Dave Dillon.

related entries: Photography

spammers for free speech

17th January 2004 permanent link

I am working on one or two big pieces about Art-With-A-Capital-A, partly inspired by recent comments by Brian Micklethwait about the influence of photography on painting. Meanwhile, trawling my “weblog ideas” folder for something else worth mentioning, I came across this that I noticed in November:

Spammers for free speech: a thought-provoking piece by Ian Bicking. Statistical filtering techniques are becoming increasingly effective these days, with their development mainly driven by the war on spam. (Even Apple’s mail filter, which used to be utterly ineffective, actually started working in OS X 10.3 to my great delight). If spammers discovered a surefire way of getting past bayesian filters it would render email obsolete overnight.

However, every sword is double-edged(*). Filtering techniques, as well as fighting the good fight against spam, could be misused for malign purposes such as internet censorship by governments. If a way of defeating spam filters also blew a huge hole in the “Great Firewall of China” then it would not be entirely a bad thing.

(*) Metaphorically. I have seen plenty of single-edged Japanese swords in museums, thank you.

related entries: Programming

google searches and old web pages

15th January 2004 permanent link

I was looking through my site logs for December on the train this morning, and was surprised to see that 156 people were still reading my review of the Ansel Adams centenary exhibition from the December before. More surprising were a couple of the google searches that sent people my way: “Elliott Erwitt”, for example, and “Ansel Adams christmas cards”. My review does in fact mention both Eliott Erwitt and christmas cards, but I just checked and I'm not even in the first five pages for either of those searches. Good grief. Some people just have far too much time on their hands.

related entries: Photography

on being ill

14th January 2004 permanent link

I mentioned that I was ill last weekend. It turned out to be only for a day, but I was worried at the time that it might be this two or three week knock-you-down flu that is going around. It’s interesting to observe how pragmatic you become about these things when you’re a parent. I don’t particularly welcome the idea of me suffering, but that was really the last thing on my mind after “oh my god if it is the flu I hope the baby doesn’t catch it” followed by “I hope Maria doesn’t catch it too, but let’s be realistic she probably will, so I need to go to bed and get better quickly so that we’re not both ill at the same time, because then who would  look after the baby?”

(And what do you do about that? Both parents being ill at the same time is quite likely to happen sooner or later. At which point, I assume, you just still manage to look after the baby somehow or other.)

Then there’s the fact that I’m self-employed and currently working on a project that has a fixed deadline for a trade show next month, so that means if I’m ill for more than a day or two a significant loss of billable time and/or having to work massive amounts of overtime afterwards to catch up.

After all that, the simple fact of actually feeling unwell really seems like rather a minor detail.

And the baby did get ill a couple of days later, for the first time. You know it’s going to happen sooner or later, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it does. Won’t be writing anything substantial this week.

on watching films

12th January 2004 permanent link

I wasn’t feeling well at the weekend, so apart from urgent safety measures in the kitchen, I spent a lot of time either in bed or on the sofa watching DVDs. Watched Chinatown (1974) and Das Boot (1981), and came to the strikingly original conclusion that “they don’t make films like that any more”. I really can’t think of many new films I’ve seen in recent years that I think will have me gasping in amazement at how wonderful they are in 25 years. (Spirited Away, possibly. Don’t even talk to me about Lord of the Rings – my extended edition dvd of The Fellowship of the Ring will be on ebay any day now)

Why is this? (I know I’m about the ten millionth person to ask this question.) It isn’t nostalgia for my youth – Chinatown and Das Boot were both made when I was in my teens, but I didn’t see either of them until years later. A lot of people seem to think it’s because the demographics of American movie audiences have changed so Hollywood films are now aimed at adolescent boys rather than adults. Possibly. I know I know lots of adults who actually do want to go to the cinema and would dearly love to have a reasonable chance of seeing something that doesn’t just leave them feeling insulted. Sturgeon’s Law certainly applies - 90% of seventies films were crap too, it’s just that we only remember the good ones. But still, it’s a long way from 90% crap (golden age Hollywood) to 99% or more crap (contemporary Hollywood).

Is it just that any art form quickly mines out the worthwhile ideas that are within its reach and then has nothing left to say or do? There’s certainly a strong case for aguing that with, say, western classical music – a couple of hundred years of sheer exuberant wonder from circa 1700 to 1900, then picking over the remains? Or the “literary” novel. And mass communications may make the process faster – jazz lasted, creatively, from the 1920s to at the latest the 1960s. Maybe cinema just managed a decade or so more than that at both ends and is now a zombie art form too. I hope not.

Hmm. This started out as something throwaway to write on the train after a weekend of being ill, and is heading towards altogether more mentally strenuous territory of “is the phase space of possible art forms getting mined out too?”, and “what is art for anyway?”, which I don’t propose to even attempt in the remaining ten minutes of my journey to work.

Meanwhile, Alan’s Quick Guide to films and literature about the Battle of the Atlantic. The essential text is Werner Herbert’s Iron Coffins – the memoirs of one of the few U-Boat officers to survive the war, and generally the best Second World War memoir I’ve ever read. Das Boot is of course the definitive film, but the film of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea is also very good, as is the novel itself. C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd is in my opinion his best novel, but was out of print for years. The copy I have was originally my father’s. For other submarine adventures, I recall Run Silent Run Deep being pretty good and I also liked the film of The Hunt for Red October.

it’s a dangerous world

10th January 2004 permanent link

My son (aged seven-and-a-half months) started crawling this week. He’s been going backwards for about six weeks now; a few days ago he started managing to go forward a short distance if he saw something particularly interesting and tasty right in front of him (electrical cables are a particular favourite). Yesterday he actually made it from one end of the apartment to the other.

No prizes, then, for guessing today’s main activity – rearranging the kitchen so that nothing potentially dangerous is low down on open shelves. The problem here is defining “potentially dangerous”. We had a long discussion about whether belly ache from eating a bag of flour might be more or less unpleasant than a headache from droppping a can on one’s head; and the upshot is that I’ve now worked out a way for a sufficiently determined and ingenious baby to kill himself with almost every single object in the kitchen. Not exactly conducive to peace of mind.

more yoga workshops – small world

10th January 2004 permanent link

A bit more yoga workshop advertising: my teacher Bettina, when she comes back from her current spell studying in India, is teaching a workshop in May in Erlangen, near Nürnberg. Also visiting Erlangen in June is Andrew Eppler – I’ve never met him but he comes very highly recommended by my former Mysore roommate Christina, who now studies with him in Oklahoma. Small world.

Both these workshops organised by Arjuna of Links in German.

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to …

8th January 2004 permanent link

(This is not a joke): Johnny Cash’s cover of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. It really exists, and is brilliant.

Lovely piano from, apparently, the piano player from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (such are the wonders of google for making the ignorant – i.e. me – appear knowledgeable).

related entries: Music

my secret diary

7th January 2004 permanent link

I have a confession to make: the story about my new winter hat was actually from last winter. Maria spotted this; I told her she should be flattered that I carefully remember cool & interesting things she says, and save them up until I have a weblog a year later.

So then I asked her about her opinion of something else I had written. Oh, she said, I don’t read the whole thing – I just look for the bits that are about me. So I’m safe. I can write anything I like about How Russian Culture Sucks [joke] as long as I don’t mention her name anywhere near it.

currently listening to …

6th January 2004 permanent link

Mamou Comes To Town by Mamou. Mamou are one of the best live bands I’ve ever heard, and I heard them completely fortuitously. I was working in Houston on a contract for Compaq, and the other English guys I was over there with – having experienced weekends in Houston before – decided we were going to drive to New Orleans for the weekend instead.

On Saturday night, being tourists in New Orleans, we went bar-hopping on Bourbon Street. And in one bar there was this great cajun band. The others wanted to carry on and check out other bars – I just kept saying “can we go back to that bar with the cajun band now?”. Which we eventually did, and they played until half past two in the morning and were stunning.

One of the guys I was with was in a band himself, and was awestruck by the guitar player. “Look, he’s playing superbly and he’s not even trying, he’s just laughing and joking with the others”. My commment on this was “look at that guitar – he’s been trying for twenty or thirty years”. The guy had a Fender that had been played so much it almost had holes worn through it. A bit of googling (*) reveals that this was Steve LaFleur, who seems to be something of a modern cajun legend – justifiably, I would say. This review of Mamou Comes To Town has some history of the band.

I picked up one of their CDs at the time but didn’t like it nearly as much as the live show. Noticed this album recently on emusic, though, and am enjoying it.

I notice several of the people who reviewed Mamou Comes To Town on amazon had the same experience I did:

I saw this band at Patouts on Bourbon Street. … We saw the band setting up ..and not knowing what to expect from these guys. When they kicked in..I was totally in awe

For anyone going to New Orleans, catch Mamou at Patout's on Bourbon Street - they are exciting to watch and incredibly talented. Unfortunately, their album comes up short on both counts. I'm not sure how they could capture their energy on an album, though.

I also took one of my favourite photos on the way back to Houston. A damn fine weekend.

(*) If you name your band after a town, however, it makes it awfully hard to find you on google.

related entries: Music

yoga workshops

5th January 2004 permanent link

My long time friend and yoga teacher, Bettina Anner, is teaching a yoga workshop in Tuscany in July. Bettina is currently on I believe her fourth visit to Mysore to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (with whom I also studied a couple of years ago). Website Real Soon Now; meanwhile contact Peter Kollbach for details.

Another of my (former) Munich yoga acquaintances, Lori Sjollema, is organising a yoga workshop in Marbella in Southern Spain at Easter. Details.

(This website is not a general listing service for yoga workshops. For ashtanga vinyasa yoga there is already a good one of those at As I’ve stated before, both here and in mails to quite a few people, I normally only link to that sort of thing if I know the people concerned – in which case if I can draw one or two more people’s attention to a workshop than might otherwise hear about it, I’m very happy to help. See also the friends & family section of my yoga links page)

related entries: Yoga

technology winners and losers

5th January 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray has a couple of interesting pieces on technologies that have been influential Winners and Losers in computing over the last couple of decades. I agree with all of Tim’s choices, and have thought of a few more possibilities:

Ethernet and TCP/IP (Winners) versus Token Ring and X.400 (Losers) in networking.

USB (Winner) is unglamorous, but has been hugely influential as the first technology that actually made connecting accessory devices up to PCs painless and reliable. This despite being clearly technically inferior to Firewire – which I wouldn’t list as a Loser, it’s widely used and I think unlikely to go away for quite a while, but it is and will remain less ubiquitous than USB.

I’m not too sure about listing perl and python – both as candidate Winners, obviously. Tim mentions open source as one of his Winners. I think perl and python may be important enough to justify not just lumping them under that heading. Somebody (I forget who, it may even have been Tim) cited them recently as the most important examples of open source being capable of producing major innovation, and they are prime exemplars of worse is better and less is more in design philosophy (no prizes for guessing which I’m referring to as which). However, one could argue that C (cited as a winner by Tim) is an earlier and more influential example of both philosophies; and that Lisp is pretty significant prior art in terms of a very powerful high level language. And although it’s undeniably nice, it’s by no means clear to me that python has the infrastructure to be a major long term influence.

(I remember reading books about Object-Oriented Databases, Tim’s first Loser, around 1990 and thinking “wow, this stuff is clearly better than relational”. Which turned out not to be the case.)

related entries: Programming

return of the king

3rd January 2004 permanent link

Saw Return of the King this afternoon (having also re-read the book over Christmas for the first time in almost thirty years, and only due to the seriously limited selection of English language holiday reading material in my local bookshop). The book is better than I remembered, and I found the film an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, but anybody who thinks it’s a Great Film – well, has radically different views from mine regarding what constitutes a Great Film.

Was going to write more about it, but why bother when there’s this?

Update: Not to mention this and this?

the vedas and the aryans

2nd January 2004 permanent link

Some general notes on the subject of the age of the Rig Veda and the origins of the Vedic speaking Aryans who composed it. I’ve written about aspects of this before – war chariots, the genetics of upper caste Indians and a new but rather questionable theory on the origin of the Indo-European language family. Here’s some more stuff around those subjects that I’ve picked up recently or not mentioned here before – just notes, not an attempt at a coherent essay.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here before that by far the best thing I have read on the whole subject is Edwin Bryant’s book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Edwin is not only a fine scholar but also (a) a nice guy who answers his emails helpfully and (b) a yoga student who is producing a series of commentaries on Patanjali's sutras for Nama Rupa. A good online starting point is the archive of the Religion In South Asia mailing list. I used to maintain a page of notes & links on the subject. I haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s all still relevant.

Whilst trawling usenet for reactions to the new Gray & Atkinson theory on Indo-European languages, I discovered that the sci.lang and sci.archaeology newsgroups have an odd mixture of some threads dominated by serious, well-informed and polite discussion, and some dominated by cranks and morons. There’s a lot of good information on the Indo-European languages in this thread, particularly this contribution from S.M. Stirling, and this one.

There is no evidence of lightweight chariots existing anywhere in the world before about 2000 BC at the earliest”, I wrote in my essay on war chariots. Oops. Yes there is. The book I read was written in the late 1980s; then in the mid-1990s some chariots dated to 2100 BC were discovered in Russia. I have updated the chariots piece accordingly


related entries: Yoga

anatomy and reflexes

1st January 2004 permanent link

Happy New year, everybody.

I’m reading an excellent book at the moment, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by David Coulter. Full review to follow at some point, but meanwhile I’ve had reason to think about some interesting things Coulter says about reflexes.

There is a reflex, for example, that is triggered by nerve endings in the tendons that work as strain gauges. The reflex relaxes the associated muscles if the tendons are in danger of being overloaded. Coulter’s main interest in this reflex is how yoga students can learn to voluntarily trigger and use it; but he also mentions that it seems to be possible to override it in extreme crises, such as the often-quoted example of mothers lifting very heavy objects off of trapped children. We can switch off the safety cutouts and literally pull our bodies to pieces if we have to.

Another reflex, which is more highly developed in cats but also exists to a degree in humans, is to twist into a safe landing position if you find yourself falling. We can override this one too, I discovered recently.

On New Year’s Eve (note: before I was drunk) I slipped in the snow carrying my seven month old son. Made no attempt whatsoever to protect myself – just went flat on my back with the baby clutched firmly to my chest, startled but unhurt. The point isn’t whether, given time to think, I would have consciously chosen to do this – of course I would. Any parent would. But you don’t have time for conscious policy decisions when your feet have just gone from under you in the snow, you’re wired to just do it anyway. That’s what the fast hardwired bits of the nervous system are there for. The “protect the baby at all costs” instinct over-rides the “land safely when you fall” reflex.

(I was ok too, thanks for wondering.)

related entries: Yoga

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