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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.