2014/08/20

Icy water

I also find that somehow, the way I'm built, the hardest part of my job is simply to shift from one task to the next. The new task is like icy water you have to dive into. The old task is a warm bath. It's especially hard when I know the new task is going to be really difficult, as half of them are. I always have to brace myself.’ — And many other pearls of wisdom in Lifehacker's interview with Ira Glass.

2014/08/14

Illumination

I’m trying to find these rare moments where you feel completely illuminated. Facts never illuminate you. The phone directory of Manhattan doesn’t illuminate you, although it has factually correct entries, millions of them. But these rare moments of illumination that you find when you read a great poem, you instantly know. You instantly feel this spark of illumination. You are almost stepping outside of yourself and you see something sublime. And it can be something very average, some small thing that everybody overlooks.’ — Werner Herzog

2014/05/26

Word still a pain in the ass

I'm going to ignore the stupidity of telling me the name of the file and then saying the problem might (but only might) be related to the name of the file.

I know I'm biased with all the time I've spent using LaTeX, but there's not a single thing in Word that works nicely for me. Things like this just take the cake.

That students don't remember to send PDF is the big problem here. But really, given the fact that I can't even open a report in Word that was written in Word, and it's 2014, and there are so many other things that people do wrong in this program, can you blame me for telling students that Word is a waste of time and getting them to use LaTeX instead?

2014/05/17

Open Finder window from Terminal directory; a better way


In Mac OS X's Terminal app, it's quite common (for me at least) to be working away in a directory and want to then view that folder in the Finder; whether to browse around or attach a file or what have you.

This is easily done with ‘open .’, which takes the current directory (.) and opens it using Mac OS X's default application for that filetype (in this case, Finder for a folder).

However, after doing this a few times you end up with multiple windows open in the Finder, and it's all rather cluttered.

I attempt to only have three Finder windows open at any one time: two view-by-columns browsing windows, and one view-as-list Downloads folder (it's a bit of a dumping ground). So when I want to view the current directory from Terminal, it'd be better if I could just change the current view of one of my windows to where I'd like to go.

AppleScript is your friend for any such task, and while I could do more to make this fancy (like switch away from the Downloads folder if necessary, etc.) here's a shell script (I call it fin) to do exactly that:

#!/bin/bash

osascript -e "tell application \"Finder\" to activate" \
  -e "tell application \"Finder\" to set the folder of the front window to POSIX file \"`pwd`\" " > /dev/null

Save this as a text file in ~/bin/ (which might need to be added to your path by default; no longer sure), then hit chmod +x fin (assuming you call it fin like me) and your new command fin is ready to go.

Better.

2014/05/16

‘Sleep problems: predictor or outcome of media use among emerging adults at university?’

An interesting article just published in the Journal of Sleep Research tracked around 1000 university students for three years to establish the relationship between sleep problems and ‘media’ use (including TV and social media).

The abstract reveals the surprising results:
[S]leep problems predicted longer time spent watching television and on social networking websites, but not vice versa. Contrary to our hypotheses, sleep duration was not associated with media use. Our findings indicate no negative effects of media use on sleep among emerging adults, but instead suggest that emerging adults appear to seek out media as a means of coping with their sleep problems.
This rings true to me, as much as we like to blame external factors for the ailment of youth. In my late teens and early twenties, it was very common for me to completely invert my sleep cycle after a two-week university break; it was usually compulsive book-reading or (later) nightlife that kept me awake until 4, then 5, then 6, etc., into the morning.

A big regret from that phase in my life was that I wasted so much time reading books that I'd either read before or that just weren't very good books. As fun as it might be to read something like The Wheel of Time (and I gave it up entirely in the early 2000s before the series was complete), I can't but help wonder what difference it would have made had I read real literature instead.

2014/04/21

Three years of shadow yoga

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend two back-to-back yoga workshops by Emma Balnaves and Shandor Remete. I started writing up my thoughts from the two workshops at the time and (as is often the case) didn't manage to finish off writing about the experience.

But rather than try to describe the workshops themselves, which is something of an impossible task, I want to talk more generally about my shadow yoga journey.

A couple of years ago, I wrote
I have an addictive personality, and there's no doubt I've latched onto Shadow yoga as my latest obsession. [...] For the moment I feel stronger and more flexible than I've ever been, and yet there's still so many aspects of our classes in which it seems like I'm completely hopeless.
Many things have changed since then, but I'm still passionate about yoga. Should one call oneself a yogi? According to Shandor, of course not. That title is restricted to one who has attained the fruits of yoga. People like me are only pretending to be yogis until that time comes.

I still feel stronger and more flexible than ever—indeed, the levels of strength and flexibility I had attained when I wrote the above I have far surpassed. This is one of the reasons that yoga has sustained my interest these last years. While my progress has gone through periods of slower growth, and during particularly busy or holiday times I may have even regressed, in general my yoga abilities have never stopped improving.

It's a very slow and gradual change. After months of getting nowhere with a pose such eka pada koundinyasana, one day both legs lift from the ground and balance is achieved for a brief moment. Week by week, the wrists strengthen, the shoulders relax, the breathing slows, and the pose becomes not a challenge but a reference point. I may now be further from that reference point than when I practised that pose weekly, but I know it is inside of me.

But why are we learning these sometimes strange postures? Do I really become a better person if I can put my legs behind my head? Shandor is very clear on this aspect of yoga: asanas are a tool for working with the body, and with time and practise one learns the utility of each. As more advanced asanas are learnt, their beginner's counterparts can be left by the wayside—until such time, due to injury or mishap, that you may need to go back to basics for a while. But you need only use the asanas that you need.

The consequences of this are obvious. If we spent all our time working with asanas, we eventually run out of time to do any more yoga. Shandor and Emma both emphasised the fact that with sufficient application, asana work can be performed quickly and efficiently. It is detrimental repeating poses when doing them well just once would be more beneficial. It's easy to cheat in a yoga class, and progress stagnates. No-one is responsible for this but you.

Time to stop cheating.

2013/07/17

Mark Pilgrim's ‘The pursuit of happiness’

Mark Pilgrim had a blog (among many other things) which no longer exists. Because it's of particular interest to me, I'd like to quote just one of his entries because it's something I've come back to often over the years. He presented the following list under the title "The Pursuit of Happiness" with little comment or context:

  1. Stop buying stuff you don’t need
  2. Pay off all your credit cards
  3. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in your house/apartment (storage lockers, etc.)
  4. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit on the first floor of your house (attic, garage, etc.)
  5. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in one room of your house
  6. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in a suitcase
  7. Get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t fit in a backpack
  8. Get rid of the backpack

Not saying it's for everyone but there's definitely some truth to be had in there for me.

2013/06/28

Problem with technology

Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk:
The problem with music and technology right now is that there’s this utopian idea that technology is going to assist you in freeing your brain to reach higher goals. But the reality is that technology just makes you lazy. Tablets and stuff do so many things for you, but at the end of the day more people are going to be playing Angry Birds on them than reading books.
Amen. 

2013/03/10

Sleepiness predicted by lack of sleep

In what I hesitate to describe as a surprising outcome, a recent paper in Sleep Research says:
It was concluded that the main determinants of daytime sleepiness in a real-life day-to-day context were short sleep, poor sleep and early rising, and that days with high sleepiness ended with ratings of poorer health.
Jokes aside, I suspect it is extremely important that studies of these sort are conducted in order to get a measure of ground truth in the matter. Imagine if they'd discovered that something in here was not as expected! 

Life is pain

I'm somewhat of a stranger to hardship.
A few years ago, I was rather affected by the suicide of David Foster Wallace.
His writing has touched deep inside me as I suspect it has of many others, and the idea of a mind that was so perceptive and that grasped so perceptively such delicate ideas being overcome by the world and destroying its body shook me with a fierce cognitive dissonance.
You hear of suicide, and you think only crazy people do it.
Then someone who you are pretty sure isn't crazy goes and does the most crazy thing.

A few months ago Aaron Swartz also took his own life.
He definitely wasn't crazy.
In his case, something far more pernicious was going on, and that certain circumstances would take someone that far has been for many a cause for rage as much as for anguish.

Last week, a friend committed suicide and it's the first time I've had the shock of losing someone my own age that I've known on a personal level.
I did not know her well and I know she lived a painful life.
The funeral was hard.
So lovely, and our hearts broke to the words of the loved ones left behind.
A tragic and unavoidable loss.

For those of us who live the optimistic life, the message is strong.
You will experience crippling pain in your lifetime, and your person will respond to that in the only way that it can.
In some cases, you won't be able to keep going.
But most of us will make it through some-how even if ugly, and we must not run from the pain.
Look at your pain directly and howl to the heavens for all the shit that is coming down on you.
No matter what is crippling you, your inner self will still be there, and it will be alive.
Enjoy the feeling, because not everyone can.

2012/12/15

An open letter to The New Yorker's international gift subscription complaints department


Hi,

Couple problems. I tried to gift my brother a New Yorker subscription just now:

https://subscribe.newyorker.com/subscribe/newyorker/71807

Because I live in Australia, I click the appropriate link ("Click here to send this gift to an international address"):

https://subscribe.newyorker.com/subscribe/newyorker/69923

Fill out my brother's details and click submit, because I'm not really paying attention. Oh, what? How in fuck's name is this a gift form? I've just ordered him a regular subscription with no indication who it's from. And he's the one getting the payment receipt.

Fine, whatever. I'll just have to tell him now that I ordered him a subscription. Luckily this credit card number runs out before the auto-renew kicks in, since, contrary to your claims ("If giving a gift, this does not apply to your gift subscription") on the order form for gifts, the subscription confirmation I received says plain: "This order includes the Subscriber's Automatic Renewal Feature". (Surely breaking some sort of false advertising / scam me out of my money law, at least in this country.)

I wonder if you've had many international gift subscriptions from this page. If not, maybe all this is the reason why.

* * *

Okay, so where do I go to try and sort out this mess? Ah, I see:

www.newyorker.com/customerservice

So I can't log into my account. Funny, I know that I have access to the online archive through my regular email login. Well, maybe customerservice needs a separate registration.

The next possibility asks for an account number. Well, since I bought my subscription on an iPad through the app I never received one. Never see a receipt since it goes through iTunes. Scratch that option.

Finally, aha!, "I don't have my account number, what should I do?" — perfect, right?

Oh.

Select a country.

United States.
Canada.

Fuck you too, Americans.

Luckily for all of us, I found a "Contact Us" page with a text box. Hopefully this will help to sort something out.

* * *

By the way, while I'm here, I also wanted to point out that having to use the clunky online archive mess for articles in the current issue behind the paywall is a pain in the arse.

* * *

Besides all this technology mess, though, love your work. Good luck sorting it all out.

Merry Christmas,
Will

2012/07/01

Adobe keming

From the company that brought you InDesign, arguably the world's best software for typography:

Screen shot 2012 07 01 at 4 54 52 PM

‘Play er’ is clearly the highlight.

2012/06/26

Academic dress

The Thesis Whisperer has a series of articles (well, two at time of writing) on what to wear as an academic. It reminded me that I wanted to mention an experiment I'm currently conducting, the outcomes of which I am very happy about.

The experiment? Dress only in black. Like a uniform. I'm serious, and it's been fantastic. I own seven black t-shirts, two black shirts, and one pair of black jeans. That's it.

Every day I put on the same clothes, and my morning has become that small amount easier. My wardrobe is much smaller and easier to organise. As is washing day. I never need to worry about accidentally dressing down one day, nor that sometimes awkward feeling of wearing work clothes at the pub. Packing for travel is just plain simple.

Maybe I'll eventually tire of black. Or perhaps one day I'll take up saffron.

2012/03/10

Thoughts on “The monk and the philosopher”

“The monk and the philosopher” (1998) is a unique book. It contains a number of presumably-edited ‘dialogues’ between father and son Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, the former a French philosopher and the latter a science PhD turned Buddhist monk, also known more recently as the happiest man in the world (somewhat tongue in cheek). (I strongly recommend Ricard's Happiness, which is how I happened on this book.) They discuss, of course, the meaning of life and other matters, largely couched in the context of Buddhism and its attraction to a once-scientist.

This book, or rather Matthieu's words, really opened my eyes in many ways to the ideas behind Buddhist philosophy; in fact, my misconceptions are basically quoted in the book as being how not to think about Buddhism:

[J.-F.R.] You sometimes hear people wondering how Buddhism could help bring peace, as it's a philosophy of detachment that encourages withdrawal from society. Monks live alone in the mountains and pray for others, but in fact they do nothing for humanity. (§6)

As I've expressed it to myself, that to achieve ultimate happiness and enlightenment we'd all end up living in caves in the mountains, and where does that leave our civilisation? This is a reductio ad absurdum view of Buddhism that doesn't accurately capture their advice for living at all. (More on this later.)

Indeed, the book contains a wealth of knowledge that fascinated the philosophical layperson part of me:

[J.-F.R.] Ataraxia is an imperturbable state that the wise man has to attain, according to Stoicism; it's to no longer be exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and bad that come up in daily life. (§2)

Not only did I not realise that Stoicism was an ancient philosophical movement (hence the term ‘stoic’), but how great is the word ‘ataraxia’?


One aspect of the book that struck me quite forcefully was the unbreachable dichotomy between how consciousness is viewed in modern scientific versus Buddhist terms. I personally lean quite strongly towards the reductionist view of consciousness as discussed by those such as Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet, whereby our consciousness can be explained purely in terms of emergent properties of the way our brains take physical inputs, process them, and form symbols to represent objects in the world that is perceived. (To sum it up perhaps too pithily, consciousness arises from the feedback loop caused from the fact that our brains have symbols for themselves.)

Douglas Hofstadter in particular (in I am a Strange Loop) discusses the idea that other animals probably have a lesser consciousness than humans, and insects perhaps not at all, but he would never argue that a rock, say, has a consciousness at all. Whereas from the Buddhist perspective (and other eastern religious of similar lineage, I believe), consciousness is a phenomenon that arises from processes outside of what we'd term the physical world; Mattieu Ricard discusses the idea of a ‘field of consciousness’ that presumably pervades everything (even inanimate matter) and gives us the spark of life, or a soul. (Reincarnation can be seen in this light as maintaining a continuity of consciousness across lives, where a reborn soul picks off from a previous thread in this ethereal medium.) Occam's Razor effectively debunks this argument for me, but the Buddhist experience and the truth which they see is hard to disregard lightly. However, Jean-François refutes this somewhat in another section of the book:

[J.-F.R.] It's no good taking the sincere aspiration that people might feel for some spiritual system as any proof of its authenticity; it might well be fake, because the sad fact is that human beings have an unfortunate dendency to feel strong inclinations for all sorts of strange things. (§12)

That the self, or even reality itself, is an illusion is a common gross idea shared across Buddhism and other related philosophies (including the yoga texts). The philosopher summarises such thoughts:

[J.-F.R.] The influence that I can have on the course of events is an illusion; it brings me enormous hopes and disappointments, and makes me live in constantly alternating joy and fear which torture me internally If I can reach the conviction that the self is nothing, and that in fact I'm only the channel of a certain stream of reality, I'll attain a degree of serenity. [...] Alas, however, our actual experience rebels against such reasoning. (§19)

How intuitive it is that our minds reject the idea that our minds are free! Although this isn't presented in terms of free will, it's a great way to address that debate as well. (Again, I'm fairly into the camp that free will is an illusion, as well.) This statement covers more than just free will, however. Our worldly possessions, our fame or how we are perceived by others, our memories and nostalgia, is all a form of artifice. This shouldn't be viewed as nihilism because of the intrinsic altruism and avoidance of suffering that is part of Buddhist life. My mind still spins in circles trying to put my own consistent slant on the whole system, however.


Back to the Buddhist teachings that align more strongly with my own viewpoint.

[M.R.] At the same moment as committing yourself to the path, you should have the intention to attain Buddha-hood for the sake of all beings. You transform yourself in order to acquire the capacity to help others free themselves from suffering. (§5)

Altruism is discussed a lot in the book, but this quote summarises it all for me. There's no point in enlightenment if you're doing it on your own. In other words:

[M.R.] It's quite useless to liberate ourselves alone from suffering if all the living beings around us continue to suffer.

And to further reinforce that the solitary retreats that are common of the spiritual masters aren't the end goal: (and this applies more generally to other aspects of, say, the extreme physical abilities from yoga practises)

[M.R.] ‘The goal of asceticism is mastery of the mind. Apart from that, what use would asceticism be?’

Krishnamacharya himself espoused the view that demonstrating advanced yoga techniques was a useful form of propaganda. But now I'm digressing. The main thread here is that we belong to the world and environment in which we live, and our ultimate rôle should be to perfect ourselves and our surroundings in this context. How can we hope to achieve this? The tidy non-answer to such a question is to simply do it. Mattieu summarises the forms of laziness that prevents this from happening:

  1. To spend all your time eating and sleeping
  2. To tell yourself ‘Someone like me will never manage to perfect themselves’
  3. To waste your life on tasks of secondary importance, without ever getting down to what's most essential

Finally, the philosopher's closing to the book resonates with me quite strongly:

Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless, exist — forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary.

I find I must agree with Jean-François's viewpoint, that a greater understanding of the philosophy and psychology behind Buddhist leads to a great appreciation for its power as a path to live by. Nonetheless, its metaphysical aspects simply do not gel with a modern view of science. I also find this with yoga. So how does one draw the line? As best as one can.

2012/02/23

A weekend of Nrtta Sadhana

Last weekend I spent three mornings at an introductory workshop for Nrtta Sadhana with Emma Balnaves. Nrtta (pronounced sort of like nritta) Sadhana, developed and taught by Zhander Remete and Emma, is a yoga style that can be considered a progression from Shadow Yoga; Emma was very careful to describe N.S. as a separate practice to Shadow Yoga (in no way able to be combined in a single practice) but at the same time something like "a next step" after it.

I would describe nrtta sadhana as subtle, close, introspective — in comparison to shadow yoga being gross, wide, expansive. Etc. Some of those words were Emma's and I can't really do justice to the explanation she gave. The gist is that having worked on the outer body, focussing on large movements, the next step is to move inwards, using smaller and closer physical movements to keep the mind more tightly focused.

But what does it mean to say that nrtta sadhana is a progression from shadow yoga? Frequently throughout the workshop, Emma referenced to and used as analogy aspects of the shadow yoga prelude forms to describe how a nrtta pose should work or feel. And as sibling practices, overlaps in style means anyone who is comfortable in shadow yoga should appreciate the flow of nrtta sadhana. Strengths obtained in shadow yoga are used in nrtta sadhana and weaknesses not yet overcome will reveal themselves.

Nrtta Sadhana consists of some 32–36 forms, which share little in common with what is generally found in current western yoga practices. Nrtta Sadhana was taught to Zhander by a sadhu in India, and its forms are depicted in ancient temples there; Nrtta Sadhana can be considered a reincarnation of an ancient practise rather than a new form of yoga. Not plucked out of thin air, so to speak.

It doesn't make sense to try and write down a description of the physical aspects of nrtta sadhana; aside from its complexity, it is something that can only be learned in person. In broads terms, though, one major component in nrtta sadhana is in careful and delicate movements and placement of the upper extremities, which are often neglected in other yoga practices. As one might expect, this brings a very different "energy" to the practice over other forms of yoga (incl. shadow yoga); I am distinctly aware of this difference in my own practice even in my limited exposure so far.


The introductory workshop taught us three complete forms which I understand are the first three "palms" of the eight palms workshop, which are taught over nine days in more comprehensive workshops. Other nrtta sadhana forms again are taught in complementary workshops. It's not clear to me whether anyone knows the complete set besides Emma and Zhander. (I didn't want to ask too many questions on my first time.)

Indeed, this is a concern that's been expressed to me by some shadow yoga students I've spoken to — what's the point of doing a nrtta sadhana workshop if you can't attend classes for it except when Emma or Zhander is in town? There are two responses to this: firstly, (and these are my own words, here) since nrtta sadhana is so introspective I believe the benefit of self practice is of far more import. Secondly, I'm pleased to report that from circa 2013 Emma and Zhander are allowing select of their shadow yoga instructors to also teach nrtta sadhana. Whether Your-Local-Shadow-Yoga-Teacher will add it to their teaching repertoire is another question, but it opens the horizons for the practice.

So what was the workshop like as an attendee? Exhausting. Fantastic. The first day was the most physically demanding, and the last day the most mentally. As I mentioned above, I can't attempt to describe the different activities performed and practised, but a summary could be:

  • Day one: introduction and warm-ups
  • Day two: form one and half of forms two and three
  • Day three: forms two and three and putting them all together

We were instructed/encouraged/impelled to practise on our own each afternoon except after the last day (nice to have a rest!), and then every morning for two weeks to allow the work to properly sink in. Surprisingly to me, it actually has managed to imprint itself quite well in my brain already, and I'm enthusiastic to keep up the practice. After a few days on my own, I'm still recalling details that I'd seemingly forgotten.

Emma Balnaves is an excellent teacher. Clear and passionate, she guided each session (physical and discussion) with humour while keeping all firmly on track. I would love the privilege to take another workshop with her in the future. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't line up with theirs for the entire year! So it may have to be some time before I can.

On a personal note, I found I had two main areas of weakness: the flexibility of my hips (of course; as always) and the flexibility of my big toe (!). By all accounts these areas of the body are energetically linked, so I expect both to loosen up in tandem with (lots and lots of) work.

My year in 2012 is going to be hectic and exciting, and I'm hoping to use nrtta sadhana to keep me sane and energised. Thanks once again to Emma for having me at such a fine workshop.

2011/11/25

Adobe Reader in 2011

I know it's cruel to mock, but: adobe-error.png Is there much worse of an error than flat-out refusing to save a document that has changes you'd like to keep?

2011/11/22

Eight months of Shadow Yoga

This is a long rambling story about me and yoga. Primarily written so I can reflect back on it when I'm older, I suppose. Feel free to pass it by if you tire of people with blogs egotistically writing about themselves.


Early yoga

My first experience with yoga was around 2005, when I went steady at Hatha Yoga Shala for I forget how long but let's say six months of weekly or perhaps twice-weekly sessions. This was the fittest time in my life, when I was running and working in hospitality at Chocolate Bean; I weighed on the order of 52kg–53kg. I was advised at the time by my teacher there that running was not appropriate for either my hamstrings or my ‘yoga breath’, so yoga replaced running as my form of exercise.

Despite very much enjoying the practise, I wasn't able to maintain it—at one point it slipped out of my life (supposedly temporarily) and didn't return. Looking back I think this time of my life was fairly experimental and transitory, without much stability or consistency in terms of my lifestyle choices. However, I credit my teacher there Gary Mills with planting the seed of yoga philosophy in my mind even if I wasn't ready to commit myself to it at that time.


Yoga Mukti

Fast-forward some five or six years to 2011 and I've ceased any sort of exercise (besides walking to work each day), gained around six or seven kilograms, and I'm feeling older and out of shape. (Although any neck and back complaints are far less pronounced after leaving Chocolate Bean.) My partner Toni—due I think to her both tiring of hearing my complaints on the matter and wanting us to spend time together—signed us up for a beginner's course at a local yoga studio, Yoga Mukti, based purely on the convenience of their schedule fitting in with ours. The idea of her going to a beginner's class is fairly laughable considering her experience here, and I'm deeply thankful she was willing to do that for and with me.

Now, at the time I had no real understanding of the fact that my original yoga classes were in the Shadow Yoga style, and I was similarly clueless that Yoga Mukti was—surprisingly—in the same style. Why surprising? The teachers of Shadow yoga are trained personally by its founder, Shandor Remete, and there are simply not that many of them! Given that Shandor Remete is from Adelaide might explain the presence here of two Shadow yoga schools literally around the corner from each other, though. Imagine my surprise to learn that a world-famous yoga teacher comes from our li'l city.

Anyway, I naively kinda thought yoga was all the same—although I'd heard of various varieties, that fact hadn't really clicked—and I was gratified to find that I slipped quite easily into this new yoga school. That Shadow yoga and its teachers suited me so well has certainly been a happy coincidence.


Brief summary of Shadow yoga

I don't feel qualified to explain Shadow yoga for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it's the only style of yoga I've done so I can't put it into context against any other school. (And even if I had been to other yoga teachers, I suspect they would vary just as much as the schools themselves, whereas I gather that Shadow yoga teachers are relatively consistent between each other.)

As I've only been practising Shadow yoga for a little while, I also can't comment on where it eventually leads, but I've done enough now that I think I can at least adequately describe it.

You can read the official description of Shadow yoga on its website but I think a more prosaic description is warranted here. But consider the following a heavily skewed interpretation of yoga in general based on my limited reading and experience.

Like all branches of the yoga system, hatha yoga—the yoga of the body, as compared to the various yogas of meditation, breathing, etc.—aims at stilling the mind to create inner calm and reach enlightenment, whatever that means. Grossly speaking, it achieves this by putting the body into difficult positions requiring the full attention of the mind to concentrate on achieving, holding, and practising those positions.

[ Digression. Us westerners can then consider hatha yoga from a physical or philosophical point of view, or both. Physically, yoga is a good way to strengthen the body and make it supple, and is a lifelong exercise program to keep us healthy; philosophically, yoga keeps our mind clear and happy. On this last point, there's probably an endorphin addiction element as well, as anyone who has known a gym junkie can attest to the addictive quality of exercise in general. Additionally, this makes the physical side of hatha yoga a gateway to the philosophical, where people like me who started yoga for the exercise might stay for the spiritual side of things. ]

These yoga positions are known as asanas (stress on the ass, contrary to my Adelaide accent—or is this english in the general?—which tends to stress the second syllable) and these are how yoga is known in our society. Most people I know consider yoga as a means for ‘stretching’, and I'm sure the images of people doing, say, downward facing dog are well-known to many.

But Shadow yoga is more than just moving between asanas which are found and held. Indeed, most asanas—there are eighty-four ‘standard’ ones of which a subset are used in various practises—are simply inaccessible to people like me who work in an office and sit all day, lacking strength, flexibility, and body awareness to even attempt them sensibly.

Instead, as a bridge to reach a level appropriate for asana practise, Shadow yoga contains what it terms three ‘preludes’, which have certain features to aid the yoga student in this progression. Each prelude consists of a fluid set of movements, some of which coming from a yoga tradition and others inspired from elsewhere such as other martial/dance disciples. An idea of the style of these preludes can been seen from the Shadow yoga videos that are extracts from their DVD.

The preludes progress in their level of availability or difficulty, and Shadow yoga classes are tied to learning these forms in series. Having now practised for eight months, I would say that I'm quite familiar with the first form, reasonably familiar with the second, and somewhat familiar with the third; on my own I only practise the first, so far.

The preludes have a number of common themes, involving:

  • A variety of movement types (twisting, bending, turning, etc.)
  • Building strength in the thighs, hips, and core
  • Finding flexibility (or lack of tension) in the major joints of the body
  • A rhythmic progression or flow, promoting a strong degree of breath control as the breath is linked to the prelude movements

The working of the breath also involves using uddiyana bandha during many poses, which exercises the diaphragm and (I assume) leads into the practise of nauli. Many of the prelude poses are also aided by the application of mula bandha. I believe the early introduction of these important yoga techniques and their inclusion in dynamic movements is quite a unique component of Shadow yoga, but I could be wrong about this.

In their advanced or complete form, the preludes culminate with a series of Shadow-themed sun salutations, forward and side splits (samakonasana and hanumanasana, resp.), a twisting backbend (atikrantam), and the peacock pose, all of which can take years of practise to perfect (and are asanas in a more traditional sense). And so the complete preludes on their own are a formidable series in their own right.


The arc of a Shadow yoga class (each is 90 minutes) follows a consistent formula:

  • Warm up
  • Prelude work
  • Asana practise
  • Inversion
  • Pranayama (breath exercises)
  • Warm down

(Sometimes time runs short to include all the last three.) My understanding is that at least in the school I attend, the inversion work goes no further than viparita karani mudra, which is kind of a supported shoulderstand, and halasana, its natural (more difficult) companion. One day I am interested in practising shouldstand and headstand proper, but I'm in no rush at this stage—in my whole life I've never been able to hold myself upsidedown, and I recognise this will be a difficult challenge for me.

It's interesting to me to view the variation of prelude work and asana practise over the course of several months and across a range of classes (from beginner to advanced). Asana practise in our school tends to follow a theme across several weeks, focussing on twisting at one time then folding, say, another. And in many cases, these asanas will feed back to aspects of prelude work—twisting leads back to atikrantam and folding to halasana, for example. An almost guaranteed asana we perform is supta padangusthasana, which directly stretches the hamstrings and opens the hips for samakonasana and hanumanasana. As someone with ridiculously immobile hips, the feeling of performing these vary for me from intolerable to extraordinarily gratifying, week to week.


Personal practise

I've made measurable progress since I begun yoga eight months ago. Every week I tend to be sore in a different (and unusual) place. The discovery of being able to consciously control the diaphram and intercostal muscles of the rigs was rather startling, to be honest.

While I started originally at one class per week and seemingly needed the whole week to recover, that quickly built up to two classes per week and then three. Each time, it suddenly felt like the gap between lessons was too long, and slotting in another class just ‘felt right’.

So right now I'm usually attending three sessions of Shadow yoga per week, and attempting on my own to at least perform the warm-up exercises most mornings, if not a run-through of the first prelude if time and energy permit. This self-practise started maybe two months ago, and running through a prelude under my own steam is significantly different to doing so in a class. For one thing, it changed the way I viewed the class—after memorising the sequence the class became more fluid as I knew without thinking what was coming next. Secondly, the classes tend to push me further in a practise than I would manage on my own; there's nothing like someone else telling you what to do.


I have an addictive personality, and there's no doubt I've latched onto Shadow yoga as my latest obsession. As always with such things, while in the midst of it I feel like I'll never give it up, but I probably thought that when I first tried yoga five or six years ago. For the moment I feel stronger and more flexible than I've ever been, and yet there's still so many aspects of our classes in which it seems like I'm completely hopeless.

I'll be so busy next year I like to think I'll need yoga to keep myself sane, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.

2011/06/02

Quick numbers on renewables & nuclear

I'm in favour of Ben Heard's plan to start phasing out the smaller and dirtier power plants in SA with nuclear options while simultaneously building up our renewable energy infrastructure.

I can't really follow all the arguments for/against nuclear and renewable power without some sort of reference to the costs and energy requirements behind them. Since I'm from South Australia, here are some numbers that make sense to me:

The South Australia government has the target for 20% renewable energy by 2010, which is around 2.5 times what we current have.

Were SA to be given a blank cheque to immediately replace its carbon-producing power stations with possible alternatives, it could follow some combination of all the following: (it seems unlikely that renewable energy can provide consistent-enough power)

  • $24B for four nuclear plants
  • $11B for 27 solar plants
  • $8B for forty wind farms

Have I got those numbers even close to right? I'm actually surprised that the solar and wind options even come in at a rough order of magnitude equivalence to nuclear. Solar and wind farms clearly are not 100% operational all of the time, so you'd need many more of them to cope with continuous and transient-spike power requirements. And logistically it is far more difficult to build ~50 wind farms/solar plants than four nuclear plants.

Geothermal power is another base-load energy possibility that I haven't considered above. SA is listed among the suitable regions around the world for large-scale geothermal power, but it's not clear whether it (nor its required infrastructure) can be developed quickly enough and in a large enough scale to be a serious alternative. Current developments in the area indicate ‘hundreds’ of megawatts would be feasible.

Perhaps geothermal is indeed a viable option to take up some of the base-load slack. But otherwise I find it hard to see an alternative to nuclear that can handle our base-load energy requirements.

2011/04/26

PhD rationale

The best explanation behind the appeal of a PhD, to me, is expressed in a comment on an Ars Technica story:

Someone - an eccentric billionaire, say - contacts you and offers you three or four years on a paradise island, all expenses paid. Accommodations will be sparse but sufficient, and you'll have lots of time, excellent connectivity and lots of resources to pursue whatever project strikes your fancy. Of course, it's limited to the agreed time; once the time is up you're off the island and back in your home time to fend for yourself again. [...] The point is, doing a PhD isn't only - or even most - about what kind of career it will get you.

Of course, I'm an optimist who's not interested in earning money just for the sake of it. By all means do a PhD if it does lead you towards a better career, but I recommend doing one for totally different reasons: learning about who you are and what you like to do. I had no idea who I was when I started my PhD, and the long, long leash given to me by my supervisors has allowed me to explore such things about myself.

2011/03/20

Considering a Mac Pro

I'm earning a little bit of money at the moment, and I've convinced myself that it's time to buy my first ever desktop. Largely due to storage but also ergonomics and stability.

I've used a MacBook or PowerBook as my sole computer for around ten years; if memory serves, I went through most of uni without a computer until I received a hand-me-down in 2000 or 2001.

(As an aside, I still believe the black G3 Powerbooks—designed in the pre-minimalist Apple era—are among the most attractive notebooks ever made. I'd have to say that the recent unibody MacBook Pros take the cake, however.)

Back to desktops. Marco Arment wrote last year on choosing between iMac or Mac Pro. To take the first and last paragraph of his article most sums up the argument quite well:

Today’s overdue Mac Pro update is a welcome change, but for a computer that’s so expensive, why not just get an iMac?

[...]

While the Mac Pro costs a lot more up front, high-performance users also get a lot more value and versatility over its lifespan, which is likely to be much longer and end much more gracefully.

In fact, if you look at the Mac Pro prices on eBay, these things have mad resale value. You're looking at something like: (Australian dollars)

  • Five-year-old, dual 2.66 GHz dual-core: $1100–$1600
  • Four-year-old, dual 3 GHz quad-core: $1900–$2600

Newer models more expensive again, of course; price ranges seem largely due to varying amounts of included memory.

Current stock prices for Mac Pro models with education discount are $2949 (quad core) and $4129 (dual quad core) and up.

Current prices for iMacs are $1929 (dual core) and $2279 (quad core). For a premium of some $900 the iMac can be augmented with a 256GB SSD as well, but if you're doing that you might as well also fork out the addition $200 to get a 2TB drive over the 1TB original.

I'm not really able to afford the eight core Mac Pro, so it's only in this list to taunt me. I'd rather not get a dual core iMac, so drop that one. Which narrows the choice to two options at very similar prices at around $3400:

  • Low-end Mac Pro + 3rd party SSD
  • Top-end iMac w. bumped drivers from Apple

These are both items that Apple will be updating this year (well, the Mac Pro is less certain but still likely). I'll keep my eye on these models as the year goes by. My favoured outcome is that with judicious saving and a juicy update, I'll be able to afford the Mac Pro. If not, I'm sure the all-in-one will suit me just fine.

2011/02/15

Gross National Happiness

I'd just like to make you aware of the idea, if it's not already familiar to you, of maximising ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a way to run your country. Cf. maximising ‘Gross Domestic Product’, which certainly causes some people unhappiness at least some of the time.

Matthieu Ricard says: ‘We cannot expect the quality of life to simply be a by-product of economic growth, since the criteria for these two are different’. Damn straight.

Disregard the obvious ‘what about the people that become happy from others‘ unhappiness’ faux-argument you'd make if you were discussing this at the pub. Kick those people out of the country. (The unhappiness-wanting ones. Not the faux-argument at the pub ones.)

Anyway, the government/leaders of Bhutan have used gross national happiness in their decision-making process since the 1970s. What an awesome country.

(P.S. I do have to say that putting ‘Gross’ and ‘Happiness’ in the same term is a bit funny.)

2011/02/14

Roast pumpkin pea soup with peas

This my favourite meal for maximum taste/cost ratio. You need

  • Split green peas (2 cups)
  • Pumpkin or sweet potato (around 300g)
  • Frozen peas (cup or two)
  • Two large onions
  • A head of garlic
  • 5–10 Cardamom pods

Preparation is easy but cooking time will take a little longer.

  1. Fry, in butter if your morals allow it, the onions and some chopped garlic (say three or four cloves) until tasty. Optional: add a splash or two of sherry or white wine.

  2. Add the split peas and fry quickly then add six cups of boiling water and the cardamom pods. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for however long it takes to get the soup edible.

  3. Meanwhile, cut up the pumpkin into bite-sized pieces and roast (i.e., coat with olive oil and lightly salt) with the remaining garlic cloves. (Remove excess paper from the garlic cloves but do not remove from their shells.)

  4. When the pumpkin is soft, add it to the pea soup.

  5. When the garlic is mushy, smash into a paste, removing their skin, and stir well through the soup. The readiness times for the garlic and pumpkin may or may not align.

  6. Finally add frozen peas and cook for a few minutes until they pop in your mouth. You may want to fish out the cardamom if you don't like flavour bombs in your soup.

Serve with lemon pepper, if you like, and—of course—buttered crusty bread. (Serves six, probably.)

Those pesky kids at Google

John Gruber linked to a report that Microsoft has recently paid billions of dollars to Nokia to have its OS in their upcoming phones.

Google earns money on Android apparently by licensing its apps and tangentially—but lucratively—through ads shown through Google search and other services. Microsoft typically has been in the business of licensing Windows to earn its money, and you'd think they'd like to do something similar with Windows Phone. But it seems that instead of having Nokia pay them for the privilege, Microsoft had to outbid Google for the reverse: ‘invest’ in Nokia for future profits via the Windows Phone platform.

You could argue that Microsoft's business plan here is

  1. Spend lots of money building Windows Phone
  2. Pay people to use it
  3. ???
  4. Profit

Let's assume there's a little more of a rationale behind it.

One could hardly argue Windows Phone sales were spectacular to date. The number of phones that Nokia sells is larger than most (see the Symbian chunk of the Horace Dediu's graph of mobile platform marketshare), so there's huge opportunity here for Microsoft to cement Windows Phone in the market. The partnership with Nokia gives the platform a real future, and may even allow Microsoft—if they're smart—to extend the platform to the tablet space, where its OS offering is strikingly unappealing.

Without this Nokia deal, Windows Phone could easily have turned into the next Palm Web OS—great technology and original design without the critical mass to keep it alive. (But HP seem to know what they're doing with Web OS, now, so it's certainly not down-and-out.) Despite the costs for Microsoft, I think it was essential that they pay this gamble just to keep themselves in the game.

It's hard to state just how profound Google's effect on the mobile industry has been. Imagine where we'd be if Android had never come to life—the tablet market would be even more dominated by the iPad, and Palm's Web OS and Windows Phone would be the big contenders against Apple's iPhone. In this scenario, Microsoft would probably not be stuck in this unappealing situation of paying people to license their OS.

Google sure have thrown a spanner in the works.

2011/02/13

iPad New Yorker app

The New Yorker app for iPad is probably my favourite experience on the iPad. The interface for the magazine works really well and perfectly suits the long-form essays plus other assorted stuff contained in the publication.

I have one major technical complaint with the application, which is that each issue is some 150MB and while it's downloading the app cannot be used for anything else, and it doesn't (obviously, perhaps) continue downloading in the background if you exit the app. So going into the application and choosing to read a new issue results in putting the iPad out of commission for some ten minutes while the issue gets pulled down.

(I don't understand why these magazines come to such large file sizes. Text and images shouldn't be so large; I'd prefer movies and lengthy audio to stream and cache themselves only after you choose to watch/listen to them. I very much hope these apps aren't using pre-generated bitmaps for the text; PDF files would be a far more sensible approach, here — especially in the not-too-distant future when the iPad moves to sup.-300 DPI screens.)

Anyway, it's good stuff, and imminent subscription services should make the whole thing much more affordable and convenient. I hope Condé Nast will be able to add background downloading in the future and it'll be all good.

My second more worry-some complaint is the in-app ads. Don't get me wrong: the magazine has always had ads and in the past they haven't bothered me.

In the February 7 issue, the magazine contained 42 "pages/articles" which are swiped horizontally for navigation. Short pieces scroll vertical, and longer articles are broken into discrete vertical pages. Of the 42 pages, eight were long-form (paged) articles, seven were single-screen ads, and the remainder (27) were various forms of content (including table-of-contents, cover page, etc.). Of the eight paged articles, three had another ad mid-way through. To recap:

42 pages / 8 long articles/ 8+3=11 ads

I found this a perfectly acceptable ratio of ads to content. They were infrequent enough to actually notice during the reading of the issue.

When I purchased the joint Feb. 14/21 issue, however, I noticed almost immediately a huge uptick in the number of total ads. Because it's a double issue, it's larger than the previous issue I described above; it contains 67 "pages", with eleven long-form articles, and twenty-eight ad screens. For the long-form articles, there were nineteen more ads within (sometimes two or three per article). To summarise:

67 pages / 11 long articles / 19+28=47 ads

The problem with the ads is that they're more intrusive than for reading a paper magazine; it's easy to turn physical pages, but swiping repetitively is a tedious process.

The huge increase in the number of ads detracted significantly from the enjoyment of reading the magazine. I sincerely hope that this increase was, for some reason, related to the fact that it was a double-issue and this large ratio won't continue in subsequent issues.

Community memory

Regan Forrest has a recap on our post-colonial tendency in Australia to lose track of our community history. Good stuff. It does boggle the mind that great floods in Brisbane in the 1970s would be forgotten a generation later.

2011/02/08

Writing about my real work

I sort of feel like this isn't the best place to discuss what I'm actually thinking about in terms of my "real work" that I supposedly do as an engineering researcher.

(Much like I've offloaded my LaTeX writing, such that it is, to another place.)

So if you would like to know what I think about things like forces between magnets, elliptic integrals, sports engineering, robotics, noise and vibration control, and so on, consider taking a look here in the future.

I've always thought that frequent writing helps keep my brain in tune although I'm not great at keeping up with it. Being able to focus into different areas helps a little, I think.

2011/01/23

Keeping it all together

I'm feeling pretty busy right now. A quick run-down of vague ‘things on my plate’:

  1. Marking for summer school. Sigh. It's equivalent to a day out of my week, but I need the money.

  2. Reviewing the paper I just accepted to review (what foolishness). It's interesting but needs a little clarity. And the graphs need work (but when do they not?).

  3. Putting together new code for calculating elliptic integrals in Matlab. This has come about through a tangent of some research of mine, and I've had a work experience student help me out. We've extended the code that already exists to handle unbounded input (previously the code was restricted to inputs between zero and one with phases between zero and pi/2), but there are a few edges cases that we can't fix yet.

  4. Working on my code for the force between magnets in various configurations. I'm not sure if someone has come up with an expression for the force between cylindrical magnets with radial and axial relative displacement; if so I need to add it—if not then I need to derive it first! (I don't believe there's a closed-form solution, however.)

  5. A new paper on the force between a solenoid and a cylindrical magnet; this is work that I've previously done for my thesis, but I've discovered that it's wrong—so I'm in the middle of fixing that up and I've got a friend in France who might be helping me with simplifying the integrals involved.

  6. And that's only a small step away from finishing off another chapter of my thesis. Of which there are several chapters that ‘just’ need finishing off, and it seems like there's always just something in the way before I do each of them.

  7. And of course the bug counts in some of my LaTeX packages are continuously increasing but I hardly even get the chance to reply to them let alone fix them at the moment. Need some breathing room to get these done.

My context switching is slowing me down, I think, but it's all too interesting to give any of it up. Look out, 2011!

2011/01/18

The Summa Scientiæ

For future reference.

The Summa Scientiæ was a proposal to create a ‘Summary of Human Knowledge’ around turn of the 19th Century.

This would make a great name for a modern-day equivalent: like one of the ‘—pediæ’ but tracking and collating (primarily) scientific work as it is published and disseminated. Older works fading into the background as newer ones advance their theories; a way to group academic fields into literal groups rather than the more ad hoc approach used by researchers now who build their literature reviews from scratch when starting in a new field.

2010/09/27

Gladwell on social media

Some insightful writing from [Malcolm Gladwell](http://gladwell.com/) in the [New Yorker](http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell) on social media. This is the message of the piece: > The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. And good comparisons between tight-knit hierarchies and loose networks: > No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system.

2010/08/31

Practising writing

In ‘3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students’, Matt Might writes on cogency:

Generally, grad students don't arrive with the ability to communicate well. This is a skill that they forge in grad school. The sooner acquired, the better.

Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You'll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers.

Assuming negligible practice writing for public consumption before graduate school, if you take six years to get through grad school, you can hit 10,000 hours by writing about 5 hours a day.

Of course, you're not doing a Ph.D. to become an expert writer, you're doing it to become an expert in your field of research. But the point can be a shocking one: when I was early in my Ph.D. my realisation was slow that my writing was, at best, very average. Then consider that an Australian Ph.D. will take on average only 3.5–4 years after a four-year bachelor; we skip the important learning experience of doing first a Masters project.

Writing a blog isn't the only way to practise writing. Document your code as if others were to be using it; write notes on papers you read as you read them, don't just file them in a bibliographic database for ‘one day’ writing a literature review. Joining mailing lists and asking for and offering help and advice online will quickly make you realise how difficult it can be at times to make yourself understood through the medium of text online.

I also find that reading a lot helps my writing, but I'm pretty ashamed of the paltry number of books that pass by my bedside table these days.

For future reference (for myself, mostly), here are some tools I've recently read about for improving your writing without expending any time to do so:

These certainly won't do much to improve your writing, but if they save even one silly doubled-word mistake in your thesis, they're worth it.