alan little’s weblog archive for january 2008

one percent theory

24th January 2008 permanent link

“99% practice, 1% theory” is one of Pattabhi Jois’s famous bits of gnomic guidance on how to approach ashtanga vinyasa yoga.

I was sure this was just what I needed when I first started practicing yoga seriously. My life was down a pretty deep hole at the time, and I was convinced one of the reasons for that was too much reading and thinking and not enough doing. So for my first few years of ashtanga yoga, I deliberately concentrated entirely on practice and left the theory to be taken care of later. It was a series of philosophy lectures by B.N.S. Iyengar at a workshop in the summer of 2001 that finally convinced me it was time to start catching up on the one percent. So I bought Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga, including his translation of and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, and read it. Pattabhi Jois says the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita are all the 1% theory you need.

Sooner or later one’s karmic burdens reassert themselves, though. My practice-to-theory ratio is sill reasonably healthy, but Amazon has figured out that the former academic historian in me is irresistibly drawn towards books by western academics attempting to make sense of yoga’s history, and relentlessly recommends them to me. Fortunately so far they are few & far between. Ian Whicher’s The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana seems like it will be interesting one day, but I haven’t really managed to get to grips with it yet. I ground my way painfully through much of Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. One of the reasons I never made it as an academic was my belief that the ability to write is a vital skill for a historian. This belief is deeply unfashionable or even heretical in contemporary academia, and Professor Alter clearly does not subscribe to it. Just arrived is Elizabeth de Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga. Let’s see how that goes.

related entries: Yoga


16th January 2008 permanent link

A few years ago I wrote that I thought my friend Lakshmish in India would make a good father one day.

That day has come, and I am delighted to be able to congratulate baby Goutama, born on the 10th of January, on his excellent choice of a dad for this incarnation.

do what i say

13th January 2008 permanent link

Don’t do what I did, do what I say.

Lots of parents try to avoid making the same mistakes they think their own parents made with them – perhaps seriously underestimating the degree to which, if they have sufficient intelligence and self-awareness to worry about such things, their parents clearly must have done something right. Others repeat the same patterns generation after generation in the hope that they might eventually start working.

I just mentioned how my parents sent me to judo classes when I was about six, but I didn’t stick with it because I was by far the smallest kid in the class and quickly got sick of being chucked around the room. Consequently, Despite which, I intend to send my son to judo classes as soon as he is old enough. Why?

Partly, just because we happen to live right round the corner from what is apparently Germany’s top judo club, TSV Grosshadern – twelve times national team champions, according to the website, and home of two world champions. Seems like a shame to waste a chance like that. Judo is good. My martial arts credentials are negligible – a couple of years of karate at college twenty years ago – but here are two guys who do appear to know what they’re talking about, who think it’s a good thing to learn.

Judo, like swimming, is not only fun and good exercise but also potentially life-saving. Boys will be boys, so my son is likely to fall off of and/or onto things. He already rides his bike at frightening speed sometimes. Being able to breakfall safely really could come in handy at some point.

I will make sure there are plenty of other five year olds in the class first.

pushy parent

13th January 2008 permanent link

A couple of email/comment conversations I’ve been having elsewhere:

Brian Micklethwait praiseworthily does volunteer teaching at a school in London, helping kids with reading difficulties. I have a kid whose reading difficulty is that he hasn’t learned yet, but would like to start. I’ve been making stumbling attempts to help him using the following technique: he suggests a simple word; I write it then he writes it. But I don’t really know how to do this systematically and effectively. Brian does, and he wrote about a phonics book that is apparently hugely popular among pushy parents in the UK. On his recommendation I plan to buy it and use it.

We also got into a little comment conversation on the definition of “pushy parent” and whether I am one. My point of view:

"Pushy parent” is indeed a tricky term. The worst interpretation, I guess, would be parents who drive their kids to Achieve, Achieve, Achieve whether they want to or not, and make the poor little sods stressed and neurotic. A bad teacher might well use it to mean a parent who puts pressure on a school to remedy deficiencies in the way a child is being taught.

Others could take it to mean simply parents - like me - who believe in taking an active role in encouraging their child’s development, but without pushing the child to do more than it is ready for, whilst at the same time always trying to make it clear that Daddy’s attention and approval aren’t dependent on whether he can read the word or ride the bike. It’s a tricky balancing act.

My attempt to be non-pushy but cunning yesterday was to stop Jack’s writing session while he still wanted to do more, (a) so that he doesn’t run out of ability to concentrate and (b) in the hope that he’ll then be more motivated to do more the next day.

I also agree with John Kersey’s comment on Brian’s earlier piece on music lessons:

It makes sense to introduce children to music and to encourage them to enjoy learning an instrument and singing.

However, if they don’t enjoy it or want to continue, I don’t believe it is right to force them.

My parents sent me to judo classes when I was about six. I was by far the smallest in the class and quickly got fed up with being chucked around. With hindsight I can see how I could have benefited from sticking with it, but I didn’t, and my parents were right not to force me.

Barbara Sawhill also emailed me in response to my rather harsh assessment of her reaction to Tim Ferriss’s sentences. She doesn’t seem to be too terribly offended, thankfully, and whilst emailing and on reading her latest blog entry, I realised she’s actually trying to achieve more or less the same thing, just in different circumstances. Tim is writing for people who already are, or plan to be, in a foreign country, and wants them to get out of the classroom and into having real conversations in the local language as quickly as possible. Barbara’s business is teaching foreign languages effectively to people who are still in their own country, and how best to simulate the “real conversations in the local language” experience when you can’t do it outside the classroom.

(I’m astonished that Textmate’s spelling checker doesn’t choke on “praiseworthily”)

related entries: Language

hindi and urdu

12th January 2008 permanent link

Here’s a great way, through being interested in a language, “to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”. I stumbled across a series of blog postings by Mark Liberman at Language Log on the politically-driven history and development of Hindi and Urdu as separate languages. One. Two. Three. Short version: “Hindustani” was/is a family of dialects spoken across much of North India, originally descended from Sanskrit. “Urdu” was the heavily Persianised(*) formal literary dialect spoken by the Mughal aristocracy and subsequently pushed by Pakistani nationalists as “the” standard language of South Asian Muslims (even though it’s a minority language even in Pakistan). “Hindi” is a back-to-Sanskrit version propagated by Hindu Indian nationalists during and after the Independence movement. The formal official/literary versions are pretty much mutually incomprehensible but here are plenty of dialects in between, e.g. Bollywoodese, that aren’t. See also this interesting and well informed follow-up comment thread by native speakers of a variety of Indian languages at Sepia Mutiny.

I wondered when I was in India about what language(s) to learn. English works among younger educated people in big cities; out in the country it will usually just about get you food and a bed for the night, but forget reliably finding anybody you can actually have a conversation with.

I did some Sanskrit classes in order to be able to (one day) read the yoga scriptures. Try traveling around Europe with a few phrases of rudimentary Latin and see how far they get you. Learning Sanskrit at least means you can read the Devanagari alphabet that’s used for Hindi and several other north Indian languages. Kannada – the main local language in Karnataka where I mostly was – is written in an entirely different script of which after four months I could just about make out enough to work out where buses were going. Which was useful, but I was surprised what a huge relief it was when I travelled to the north of the state where people speak Konkani, the Goan language that is also written in Devanagari, and hey presto I could suddenly read road signs fairly easily.

The script thing is a major hassle for south Indians too. The main languages of south India are from the Dravidian language family and closely related, but all use different scripts. I had a Tamil acquaintance in Kannada-speaking Mysore who said he could pretty much make out a lot of what people were talking about, but couldn’t read anything.

Anyway: I pretty much reached the conclusion that, had I been planning to spend years in Mysore as some western yoga students do, then learning Kannada would have been a worthwhile time investment. Otherwise, learning a language that‘s only useful in one state didn’t seem like such a great idea and a standard, generic dialect of Hindi seemed to be the thing to go for. Except there doesn’t appear to be such a thing.

(*) Persian itself is an Indo-European language originally very closely related to Sanskrit, but subsequently heavily loaded with Arabic and Turkic(**) loan-words due to religious and political connections; not surprisingly it was largely the Arabic religious terms that tended to make it into Urdu.

(**) “Urdu” originally meant something like “the language of the army camp”, from the same Turkic root as English “horde”. [Also “yurt”??]

related entries: Language

on learning languages

9th January 2008 permanent link

A few more general thoughts and ramblings on the subject of learning languages.

The comment two down from mine on Tim Ferriss’s blog posting leads to some reactions to Tim that I find rather wrong-headed.

The comment comes from Barbara, who maintains a blog for professional foreign language teachers, and I presume is one herself.

this superficial survey of the mechanics of the language does not ever approach the deep, nuanced learning that in depth (those pesky “Wasted” hours) of immersive language learning could provide. And God forbid should anyone mention the ability, through learning a language, to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language.

The basic questionable (i.e. wrong) is that language teachers are for some reason the people best equipped to convey anything about “culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”.

I’m willing to be sceptical of Tim’s claim to be “fluent” in a large number of languages – I suspect him of using a more relaxed definition of “fluent” than I ever would – but that doesn’t mean his techniques can’t be of value. I entirely agree with his basic premise that you only actually learn to speak a language when you get out of the classroom and into situations where you’re trying to have real conversations about real things with native speakers. I’m sorry, but however demotivating it may be for language teachers the point of language classes isn’t to provide students with “cultural and historical contexts that are rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled” (to quote one of Barbara’s commenters). That’s what real conversations are for. The purpose of learning tools, including classes, is get as quickly as possible to the point where you can start attempting to have those conversations. For that, I’m willing to believe for the time being that Tim’s short cuts might be useful.

As Brian Micklethwait – not even slightly wrong-headedly – points out, what Tim is getting at in the particular blog posting we’re discussing is not learning a language, but rather assessing how to learn how easy a language will be to learn.

Somewhat but not entirely at a tangent: you can tell you are proficient enough in a foreign language when you can both score reasonably in and laugh at the country in question’s equivalent of Der Grosser Deutschtest. The Big German Test is a yearly Saturday night TV extravaganza in which Germans enjoy making themselves feel insecure about their (supposed) inadequate command of their own damn language. Understand this and you can legitimately claim a deep and nuanced understanding of twenty first century German culture.

The show runs over several hours, during which celebrities and several other groups compete as individuals and teams at German grammar and spelling tests. There’s always a group of non-native speakers that always does surprisingly well (go expats!), but the teachers always win (Barbara & co. can rest easy on that score at least).

Here are the attributes of Germans that make this interesting. One: they have a language with a moderately complex grammatical structure, whose formal written form differs considerably from what most people actually say most of the time. So far, so normal. This is true to some degree of every single language that has a written form.

However, Two: there are descriptive and prescriptive views of language. Descriptivists, of whom I am one, believe that “correct” language is whatever a native speaker would naturally say that is comprehensible to a reasonably large number of other native speakers. According to this view the formal written version is just one among several dialects with no special elevated status. Prescriptivists believe there a single Correct version of a language - usually assumed to be the formal written version – to which other forms are inferior. Germans tend (generalising wildly, doubtless with numerous individual exceptions etc. et.) towards prescriptivist views on a whole range of subjects of which language is but one.

A recent prescriptivist coup that gives Germans a whole new range of opportunities to be wrong is the Rechtschreibreform of the late 1990s. “Spelling Reform” was a doubtless well-meaning attempt to standardise and rationalise some historical quirks of German spelling and grammar. Every history of the English language mentions several attempts to do this with English in the last couple of centuries, all completely abortive even though English spelling irregularities are far, far worse than any German dialect ever was. German Reformed Spelling is proving slightly less abortive. It’s taught in schools and used in government documents, at least in Germany. The Austrians and the Swiss are ignoring it – in the Swiss case by getting some of their variants written into the new rules as officially ok for use by Swiss people. Several major German publishers, including the two largest daily newspapers, have declared against it too. Nevertheless it’s the official standard now in schools and in The Big German Test, with the result that a lot of what most people learned in school and have used all their lives, that was perfectly ok ten years ago, is officially not ok any more.

Three: insecurity. For reasons to do with both its catastrophic history in the last century and its rather dire financial and demographic predicament in this one, Germany is a society deeply lacking in self-confidence just now. Being persuaded that you can’t even speak your own language properly fits rather well into the twenty-first century German psyche.

My wife and I generally do ok competing in The Big German Test from the comfort of our sofa (go expats!), whilst also grasping the irony of the whole thing. Would students pick up much of this stuff in rich, complex, chaotic, intellectually tension-filled language classes? I fear not.

Less tangentially, Julian Tarkhanov wrote a while ago to recommend wikipedia as a language learning tool:

1) Go to the Wikipedia page on something in the language you know. Let's take your recent example:ümmel

2) Look left and under in the toolbar. Over there, you see the list of other languages on Wikipedia that have the same entry. In German it's called "Andere Sprachen" but you get the point. Click on Russian. This will promptly reveal

Тмин (лат. Carum) — род растений семейства зонтичных, из которых наиболее известен вид Carum carvi — тмин обыкновенный, используемый как специя.

I consider it much more lovely than the dictionaries. because it gives you a stimulus not only to lookup the translation, but to read about the subject as well! (which might lead you to implicitly learn other words, contexts and idioms).

… which strikes me as an interesting approach, certainly ending towards rich, complex cultural and historical context; but also one requiring a rather higher base level of skill than I have yet in Russian. Also, Julian’s mail had the misfortune to arrive just before I went on holiday in the summer, thus falling into an email black hole from which I didn’t get round to thanking him until now. Thank you Julian.

related entries: Language

she gives it to him

9th January 2008 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Six in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Five)

She gives it to him
Она даёт его ему

“Ana dayot yevo yemu”. She gives it to him.

  1. Move along, nothing much to see here, except the stress not on the “o” in “oна”/“ana”, she, a very common word.

Then Tim recommends playing around with some more variations on the theme: negations, changes of tense, conditionals. Let’s try:

She did not take it from them
Она не взяла его у них

“Ana ne vsyala yevo u nich”. She did not take it from them.

  1. … in order to expose Russian’s horrifying gender forms of verbs. “vsyala” is the feminine past tense of “take”. Do I as a man need to worry much about learning this? Sadly, yes. One of my most common occasions for speaking Russian in everyday life, should I ever get good enough at it, would be responding to enquiries from my mother-in-law or my wife’s friends about things my wife said or did. Other male students’ mileage may vary.
  2. Furthermore, unlike English and French which both have four commonly used past tenses, and German which has three – Ancient Greek I seem to recall reading somewhere had lots & lots – Russian has one past tense, but two things called moods. I haven’t the slightest idea why these need a special separate name instead of just calling them “tenses”
  3. I had also rather hoped ablative might be one of Russian’s six noun cases, but it isn’t, and in any case “них”/“nich”, them, has no declensions. Its role in the sentence is made clear by the presence of the preposition “у”, “from”.

Where do I go from here? The American military rates Russian as a Category Three (out of Four) difficulty language for native English speakers, and I saw this article saying it requires 780 hours of immersive study to reach “intermediate” proficiency. Oops. Tim would want me to take that number with a pinch of salt, especially coming as it does from a company that exists to sell those immersive study hours. Instead elsewhere on his site he suggests starting vocabulary with a list of the hundred most common words in the language in question. So let’s see where I can find one of those. (I’m already ok with the twenty or so nouns most interesting to small boys, but disappointingly few everyday conversations tend to be about ships, planes, elephants or crocodiles.)

related entries: Language

yoga homework

8th January 2008 permanent link

Apart from finally putting some serious effort into my Russian, the other thing I need to get finished in the next few weeks is my anatomy homework. In November and December I attended two very interesting anatomy for yoga workshops, one on the hips and one on the back, and I still have homework assignments to complete from both of them. (Written, not “increase your outward hip rotation by three degrees in six weeks”). So blogging will have to take a rest while I focus on those.

On that subject, an anatomy book that has been on my “to read one day” list for a while now is Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers. In the course of researching my anatomy homework I found a series of very interesting articles by him on website of Massage Therapy Magazine. Here for example is the beginning of a series on the psoas, a muscle crucial to much of human movement and posture and the cause of much grief in the screwed up movement and posture patterns of so many chair-sitting, inactive people these days.

related entries: Yoga

not yoga?

6th January 2008 permanent link

My son’s assessment of one of my two half-assed asana practices so far this year: “Daddy, what you just did – that wasn’t yoga”.

Out of the mouths of babes …

Son, you’re most probably right about that and thanks for the brutal honesty. But guess what. All those times I manage to pull off the Patient But Firm act when you’re resisting going to bed? They’re yoga.

related entries: Yoga

start as you mean to go on

6th January 2008 permanent link

A Sunday Family Life Vignette.

Start the year as you mean to go on. Well, not exactly so far, because: only two rather half-assed yoga practices up to this point (infinitely better than none at all). But also:

Sledging with my wife & son, twice. Quite hard work. Snowboarding, a couple of hours with a friend, while my wife & son and my friend’s daughter have their first ever skiing lesson together. Nowhere near as interesting as yoga, but good company, fun, and reassuring that I can still do it having last done it four years ago (at all) and six years ago (regularly). Swimming with my son, twice.

Not that “swimming with my son” involves much actual swimming on my part – I’m more in a coaching / motivational / lifeguard kind of role. Also: Throwing The Child In The Air When The Real Lifeguards Aren’t Looking. And: ignoring the No Under Sixes sign on the water slide, as we have been doing for the past three years. I wouldn’t want my son to grow up blindly paying heed to warning signs just because he happened to be born in Germany.

Hopefully all this is instilling some of the right kind of ideas in my son about what activities are worthwhile. Disappointingly in the short term, it doesn’t seem to be making him the slightest bit tired or inclined to go to bed early.

fairytale castle

5th January 2008 permanent link

Not Neuschwanstein, but in Bavaria. Not exactly a small museum, either. I'm not sure what exactly I would describe it as, but if you should ever happen to find yourself in the area, be sure to visit the Märchenschloß (Fairytale Castle) at Lambach in the Bavarian Forest. Glorious eccentricity, enough to impress even an Englishman.

My son, strangely, doesn’t seem to be having nightmares from the experience, even though the “fairy” stories that the aptly-named brothers Grimm collected, as depicted here, were real blood-and-bone folklore. One thing I can think of that this place is a bit reminiscent of is some of the locations in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

(That would be “Märchenschloss” under the Rechtschreibreform, not that I care)

Bayerischer Wald

Bayerischer Wald

C Новым Годом

1st January 2008 permanent link

S’Novim Godam: to [the] New Year, dear readers. We celebrated with a few fireworks and a snowball fight with the neighbours early evening, just in case certain members of the family didn’t make it to midnight. (I nearly didn’t, my excuse being a cold; others did with no apparent difficulty). More fireworks; wait an hour to phone family in England; bed.

I had never bought fireworks in any quantity before. What I learned: rockets from Edeka are superior to rockets from Müller (this information only useful for my German readers, I know). The other stuff in mixed packets apart from rockets is fairly lame; much better to spend your money of plenty of rockets, a few big roman candles, fountains & mortars, loads and loads of sparklers of various sizes & types. A small packet of kid’s fireworks is good value, even if the kid in question needs somebody bigger to hold the match with him and then remind him to run away.

Later, the New Year’s Workout: family sledging afternoon in the Bavarian Alps. Discover that the prime sledging spot recommended by the locals is halfway up the mountain. Break trail up the steepest bit of knee-deep fresh snow you can find for a spot of powder sledging. Realise you have to go back and carry the family member for whom knee-deep snow is armpit-deep.

This is a nice lower body/aerobic complement to yesterday morning’s tree-climbing adventure, when you took your son and the neighbour’s kid to fly model aeroplanes in the park (no planes lost). Kids keep you young, if you don’t weaken. You have now earned your Glühwein.

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