Wednesday 30 January 2008

Encouragement for beginners

"Am I ready for my first milonga?"

If you have taken a small number of classes and you are asking yourself this question, chances are the answer is Yes, you are as ready as you'll ever be and you might as well try it. if in doubt, you could just go and have a look, even if you don't dance (I can't imagine anyone will mind). You could get together with some other people from your beginners' class and agree that you'll all go. Some teachers who do beginners' courses (including this one) even build it in as part of it after eight weeks or so.

If you like, you can have a look at my other posts on this subject, and other people's (some are linked in mine) to give yourself some reassurance and help about the details and suggestions for what to concentrate your energies on. Hope it helps.

I also don't think you need to announce to anyone that you are a beginner. If you are following and someone has just asked you, whether you are good enough for him is entirely his concern. If you are leading, you can keep it simple, in which case it will be fun anyway and is not a problem. If she hasn't seen you before and isn't willing to take a risk, she can always say no, thanks; if she has a sense of adventure and says yes, then she's willing to dance with YOU and that's the end of it. Either way, you have nothing to apologise for.

But lots of people have lots of opinions (with a lot of overlap but some disagreement) and if you hunt a bit you could easily be overwhelmed with "do's" and "don'ts", especially if you are leading. I think it's easier if you have the adventure early, before working on technique and whatnot starts to feel like a slog. You know you won't be perfect and you won't feel bad about it and nor will anyone else, and you won't even know how to do 90% of the "don'ts", so you're safe there.

You also won't have had time to direct energy into things (like 'ornaments') that there's just no reason to worry about until you feel like it.

I went for my first one when I'd been dancing about eight weeks, and didn't go for my second one till about four weeks later. Then I went every couple of weeks for a while, then every week, and now I go twice in most weeks, which is all I have time for. I got plenty of dances early on that were lots of fun, and the ones that weren't as much fun were still really interesting. And the bad ones, quite few in number, weren't the sort of thing I was likely to let stop me. Now they pretty much all go quite well, which is 50% because I'm better and 50% because different people want to dance with me. Some are really dreamy, but some were pretty dreamy even early on.

I am a pragmatist. I don't think it is about anything except what it is. I think that it is a dance, and is about music and enjoyment and finding out the answer, over time, to "what happens if I do this?" That's because I have the personality and world-view that I do.

If you are an intelligent, curious person you will learn things from anything you are interested in and motivated to work at, and apply them to other aspects of your life. There is nothing special about dancing tango in this respect. You have to find something that interests you, that's all.

Tuesday 29 January 2008


I am not having a very good week so far (apart from the baby pictures, which always make me smile). I'm annoyed. I got a lot out of my regular class yesterday but I'm not writing about it while I'm annoyed.

So I'll just observe that Johanna has written her own version of the beginners' guide to tango. I love her bit on adornments, and why you shouldn't.

I made an executive decision quite early on not to bother with adornments until they started happening all by themselves. Only then would I pay the subject any attention. I still think that was the right decision, and I only do little ones. I'm gradually introducing variations and trying to increase the range of what I can make work.

The littlest one I do is with my eyelashes. It's tickly.

Sunday 27 January 2008

Little Pearl

Here is what the Muumibaby looks like now, wearing the hat I knitted when I was there. A little pearl with bright blue eyes. I'm so glad I chose this cloudy blue for her hat. It looks perfect. She can crawl around now, and pull herself upright.

The hat is, if I remember correctly, four repeats of a layout of two different cables. One of them is just a plain six-by-six cable. The other one is an interesting double cable. The cross happens over two rows. You decrease by one stitch on the first, and replace it on the second.

I recommend knitting all knit stitches in this cable through the back to give the appearance shown.

Set cable: k, p, k, p2, k, p, k.
Cross row 1: (on right side): sl 3 to cn, hold to front. ssk (this loses one of the centre purls), p1, k1, p1 (this will be one of the two new centre purls), then k1, p1, k1 off cn.
Cross row 2 (if knitting in the round): k, p, k, purl front and back (restores the missing centre stitch), k, p, k.
Cross row 2 (if on wrong side): p, k, p, make one by lifting and knit it (restores the missing centre stitch), p, k, p.

k = knit, p = purl, cn = cable needle, ssk = slip 2 and knit them together (i.e. decrease by one).

I crossed the double cable every nine rows because I like the resulting relationship with the six-by-six one, but this is awkward if you're knitting flat, because you'd be using the cable needle on the wrong side. If you want to knit it flat, it would be much easier to start crossing on an even numbered row.

To make the hat, do three repeats of that pattern in double-knitting wool, and when you have crossed the double cable for the third time, start decreasing on every row at four points around to make it hat-shaped.
Isn't she beautiful?

Saturday 26 January 2008

What you need to know for your first milonga - follower

Ricky and Supantheress have written a very nice guide to what a beginner follower should aim for to be nice to dance with. This post is a bit different - less about what the leader is looking for and more about what the follower needs to know for herself.

For my first milonga, this was what I needed to know:

  1. How to walk backwards with my feet in a straight line so I didn't go from side to side. (That took a bit of work - but practising it forwards works, and practising walking down the stairs without looking works really well).
  2. If my foot met his foot, to make contact and then step over (assuming the lead is going that way, sometimes it doesn't but they still want you to do this - let them sort that out).
  3. How to just stand there and look puzzled when I didn't understand what to do. This is difficult, it takes determination. But any other action is counterproductive. You move together or not at all. Give him a chance to make it clearer.
  4. The way to get danced with is to stand near the edge of the dance floor, smile, and fidget slightly in time to the music. At least, this was the first thing I tried, it worked, and it still does.
  5. What to wear. I think that deserves a seperate post, but anything nice you can move in will do, and nothing that can catch on his clothing.
  6. Not to rush. (This is a hard one).
  7. Not to talk. You need the concentration, and so does he.
  8. Not to apologise. It just drives everybody round the bend. If you find this one tricky, decide in advance that when you feel the urge to say "sorry", you will giggle instead.
  9. Not to say "thank you" until he does, or the end of the set. This is very difficult and takes even more concentration than standing still, because you're genuinely grateful to be danced with, it's a completely natural thing to say in the pauses between tracks, and it just seems wrong and impossible not to say it. But it has a special meaning in this context which is not what you have in mind at all. So here's a technique: allow your mouth to open, then say something else instead. It doesn't matter how inane - prepare something in advance. Try "what a nice piece of music that is," or "Isn't it hot?" It worked for me.

Some of this I had been told, some of it I rapidly worked out for myself, and happily someone managed to communicate (2) in two words during the dancing, and I went "oh!" and it all made sense. So you can afford to wing it a bit.

You should actively avoid learning or remembering any sequences. It will only confuse you, and if it makes you anticipate it will confuse the leaders even more. Tango is an improvised dance and you cannot make any assumptions at all about what's going to happen next. (Of course, that's more true with some leaders than others, and if you get to dance with someone of whom it's really true, dance with him as often as you possibly can). If in doubt, just stand there and don't change weight. If someone seems to expect you to remember a sequence, ignore him. And it doesn't matter if you never dance with him again. You have identified a wally.

Useful supplementary information includes:

  1. Lechers have an incentive to work hard on their dancing, and are always kind and very useful to the learner. They will politely lose interest when they conclude that they are not going to get into your knickers, but this does not matter, since by that time you will be getting other dances too. They are perfectly harmless, and the contents of their imaginations are Not Your Problem.
  2. If you think a man is making strange faces at you and you are wondering why, it's possible he is inviting you to dance. Try smiling at him, and if he intended to ask you, he will wander over and look at you sideways. At this point, stand up, and he will offer you his hand. Off you go; no common language required. Very few men do this where I dance in London, but those who do are usually good dancers, so go for it. It's traditional. Don't question it or worry about it for now. And it's unlikely to happen at your first milonga unless the man is your teacher or someone else you already know.
  3. It's going to be stressful and someone will try to teach you on the dance floor. Just smile and pretend you can't hear what he's saying over the music. Promise yourself that you will never, ever, do that to anyone. Wear reliable waterproof mascara, in case it gets you down.

But mainly, just do the best you can to relax and concentrate. Following is quite demanding cognitively and uses up a surprising amount of energy. Remember that you're trying to feel it, not infer it, and that means you have to be willing to be wrong and not worry about it. It could be anything, and you're not psychic, so for all you know, it was what he meant after all. But this is all harder than it sounds, and you will probably not be able to do it at first unless they keep it simple, and not all leaders have enough imagination and confidence to be able to keep it simple. So don't get annoyed with yourself.

Oh yes, and you don't need to worry about your handbag. You can just leave it on a table, it's a small world, people are there to dance, and the chances of anyone touching it are exceedingly remote. But it's a good idea to take a very small one - you only need your keys, your train ticket home, and the money to get in and for one or two drinks.

My very, very first social dance was a milonga (in the musical sense, i.e. really fast!) - I just jumped right in at the deep end, there. Even when you've got the skills, there's a lot to be said for only dancing milonga with leaders who have a clue, and he didn't - he expected me to know a pattern and his lead was totally unclear. I was awful, but I survived it and decided not to regret displeasing him, and then I had some really good dances and a fool who thought it was OK to stop dead on the dance floor and try to lecture me.

It was hard, but I was glad I'd gone, it's exciting, and it steadily gets easier. But it stays exciting. And when it works, it feels fabulous.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Last.FM Tango DJ Radio

Back to the subject of where to find tango music, look at this! This is fun; Last.FM music-on-demand. You can make radio stations. And you can also buy music.

There's one generated by a "Tango-DJs" group, but if you try to skip a track, it tends to start playing awful rock, or Shakira, for no very obvious reason. So instead I've embedded one that plays what people on the site have tagged as "tango".

As I understand it from this announcement on the blog, once they are made available, artists get paid based on how much people actually stream them.

The tango-dj one just played me something I sort of like, and haven't heard before, and wouldn't have bought after looking at the cover; but I might, now. Well, maybe not this one (Gotan Project tends to get on my nerves after the first eighty seconds), but one of them.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

What you need to know for your first milonga - leaders

[Following? Read what tangologue would like a beginner follower to do. It's very good.]

This was inspired by ricky's story about an acquaintance of his. This acquaintance went to classes for two years before he went out to dance socially. Of course, if you've danced socially even once or twice you will know exactly why this was a mistake; but if you haven't, it's not obvious at all.

So this post is intended to encourage beginner leaders to get out there by telling you what you need to be able to deliver (not necessarily very well) for your very first go at social dancing, and what you don't. It's mostly what I, as a follower, need you to be able to do so that dancing with you can be fun. So if you lead and you have something to add or subtract, chip in.

I'll be happy to dance with you, and you will manage OK, if you know:

  1. How to synchronise properly. Just put your feet together and change weight from one to the other, on the beat. Don't bounce up and down or lift your heels off the floor, it's totally confusing (get someone to lead you and do it, so you find out why). Now I know which foot you're on and which one you're going to go with next.
  2. How to walk positively, on the beat, with your feet close together. Now I know whether you're moving or stopping, and I can get my feet out of the way, as if by magic.
  3. How to make a steady embrace (open is fine, just don't lean forwards or look at your feet).
  4. How to get in and out of a cross. (Ochos are optional - too many make my feet hurt).
  5. How to do a rock-step. It's easy to follow, and you can use it to fill time in a traffic jam and to change direction; you can do a lot with it musically, too.
  6. How to do some little double-times if you feel like it and the music suggests it.
  7. That (a) you are supposed to go round the floor anticlockwise without overtaking, reversing, or bumping, and (b) the world is full of people who can't do this, and some days you are one. It's no big deal.

Some kind of a round turn will also be very useful. But I don't mind.

Nothing else I can think of will be any additional use at all, and if you know all the above it is time to make yourself presentable and go dancing.

If you try get 'good' before your first adventure in social dancing, you will be wasting your time, money, and spirit, because:

  1. It is just not possible. The skills you learn in class are not, and can't be, the same as the ones you learn by doing it - as I have observed before. The social dancing skills are not trivial to learn, and you really don't want to be doing anything complicated while you're trying to get the hang of them. You also don't want to be thinking of yourself as a good dancer and then finding you're not. That's just upsetting and distracting. It's much better to know where you are.
  2. No-one will care. Social dancing is not a big deal and it's not about you. No-one is going to be looking at you admiringly, scornfully, or, very much, at all. They are busy dancing, gossiping, eating cake, observing each other's dress sense, waffling about the music, bitching about rival clubs, or thinking about themselves. It's not that people don't watch, but they don't watch very attentively, and when they do happen to look at you, it is a very good thing to be seen as what you are - a beginner with some sense.
  3. The followers want you to keep it simple and give the social skills priority. We all know that it's more fun to dance with a beginner who walks nicely, listens to the music, mostly knows which foot you're on, and doesn't get your stockings torn, than someone who expects you to deliver all sorts of fancy stuff without regard to anyone else (or, very often, the music) on a crowded floor. Such people are fools and bores. Watch the fellow reversing at high speed and doing all the ganchos and know that if you could see the woman's thought bubble, it would often say "He thinks I'm a Playstation, I bet he'd be rubbish in bed". Do not be misdirected by his example. And we also know that the beginner with some sense may well turn into a good dancer, and we'll be glad we were nice to him, whereas the other bloke is probably beyond redemption. [There are people who can do all the fancy stuff, with the music, and the floorcraft, and make it fun. Watch them, enjoy them, don't worry about them.]
  4. It's nice to be able to dance with someone from the same beginners' class as you, while she is still a beginner too. It makes the jumping in easier for her, too. If you wait, she will have either given up or grown wings by the time you arrive.

I'm not telling you to stop taking classes. I think a regular class is essential if you want to improve. But I assure you that social dancing is even more rewarding and fun.

Jump in, it's going to be stressful, but people who do it think it's worth it.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Music Downloads

The Internet is a great invention and has done a world of good in enabling human beings to communicate with each other. However, humans being, in the end, just humans, it turned out to be best at:

  1. Porn for all - and that means all
  2. Recreational Arguments
  3. Shopping

Recently it has become possible to transmit music at pretty high quality, and some unusually alert exec at EMI has realised, about five years late, that the "all" part and the "shopping" part add up to a rather good way of making money, at practically zero cost, out of their old recordings.

The prices are four times what they would be if they were serious about me unzipping my purse, and the licence seems bizarre to me (non-commercial use? What, no DJs? Why exclude your highest-spending, most determined customers?), but it's DRM-less, it's high-bitrate, and it's there. Have a look at what they've got for Carlos di Sarli and Alfredo de Angelis.

Now, let's see. Is anyone going to compete? I might buy one album at this price, if I weren't the sort of annoying person who reads licence terms and gets offended. At a quarter of the price, I might well buy more than four albums and a bunch of odd tracks, and they would make more money at a marginal cost of practically £0.00. Why?

Saturday 19 January 2008

The Welsh Centre

[UPDATE 01-Aug-08: this milonga has now MOVED PERMANENTLY to Conway Hall. UPDATE 13-Jan-09: There is now a new and different milonga on Fridays at the Welsh Centre. I haven't reviewed it yet, unless it's shown in the links on the right hand side.]

There's a milonga at the London Welsh Centre every Friday, dancing from 9pm till 11pm, and I go there quite often to start my weekend and drive work out of my mind, so this is partly based on previous experience. [Note: for June, July, and August this year, this milonga will move to a different location.]

The Class: There is a progressive absolute-beginners' course that restarts every month; there's also a recent beginners' class and a general level class. Today, the general level class was given by Rachel Greenberg & Jorge Pahl (on tour). It was very standard stuff, especially in the method. It happened to be thinly attended because the very popular Pablo Veron was teaching at Negracha the same night, so I got a little individual attention, which was nice. A rather long sequence was demonstrated and broken down. In as far as there were important concepts involved, they weren't mentioned. You had to guess. But it was well larded with technique tips and the alert student could certainly pick up useful information. The most interesting bit involved doing a very short step very slowly and deliberately; this gives you some nice musical possibilities, is not hard to learn, and feels good for the follower. She speaks English quite well, he said very little. They're both much taller than Argentinian teachers usually are, which I'm sure is helpful to students anywhere in Northern Europe, who can sometimes get the impression that there is a height limit to tango. All in all, it was good dancing, workmanlike teaching.

What I thought of the DJing: The DJ was Fernando Moro, who is a regular there. Very traditional. A lot of vocal lines, and an agreeable proportion of milongas and valses. The tangos didn't make me want to dance quite as much as usual, but it's a matter of taste - you might have liked them more. Well-organised sets with a little pause between; there were no cortinas tonight (I like cortinas), but there always have been when I've been there before. Maybe he just wanted to fit more dancing in because of the performance.

Layout and Atmosphere: Good sized floor with round tables around, and enough chairs. Proper comfy chairs and sofas in the foyer and bar as well, which are very welcome if you want to chat to a friend or sit out a set or two nursing your drink and giving your feet a rest. The bar, with its remarkable roof, is upstairs. There is a a proper, curtained stage for the band when there's live music. Friendly to the beginner and recent beginner, with usually a good mix of levels on the dance floor, which is rarely too crowded. The room is not very well ventilated and it does get hot, but the giant floor-fans to keep it down are rather fun, especially if you're wearing (or your partner is wearing) a dress that responds to the breeze.

Hospitality and Refreshments: Very good. No food, but as much water from the water cooler as you need, free. Enough hangers on rails for everybody's coats. You are politely asked not to put anything on the piano or the left hand side of the stage. At the bar upstairs I was charged a reasonable £2.60 by a friendly Welshman for a G&T which tasted like a double and wasn't too padded with ice. The loos are reasonably clean and always working.

Anything or Anyone Interesting that Turned Up or Happened: Jorge and Rachel gave a performance. They're tall and her legs go on for ever. There were lots of interesting things going on musically and technically, but I was left with an impression of intense busyness and her making a thing of adjusting her dress, which just made me think "buy some tit tape." Maybe I was just a bit distracted. They danced to Gallo Ciego and I forget what else. [Edit: I like this performance on YouTube - they are very elegant]. [Second edit: someone has posted one of their dances at the Welsh Centre.]

Dances: It was a bit thin, for the reason above. My good ones were good and the rest harmless. It tends to attract some really good dancers who like a relaxing evening.

Admission: Normally £7 class only or dancing only, £9 both. Tonight (guest teachers, performance) £10.

Getting There and Getting Home: From King's Cross underground station take the exit for Euston Road (south side), and the left-hand side of that exit, which is T shaped - i.e., not the one signed for the library. Follow your nose in the same direction; you almost immediately take the right hand fork of the main road you are walking along. This is Gray's Inn Road. Keep walking along the same side long after you are certain you must be wrong and lost in a not-very-nice part of London, and just after you pass the office furniture place you will see a large Welsh flag above the door. The walk takes me about 10 minutes if I don't hurry. The music has to stop at 11, so all the Tubes are still running and you can simply reverse the process to get home. Or you can take a bus - the nearest stop is outside the Dental Hospital.

Website: Does the job. Gives you where it is, when it's open, how much it is, and the class schedule, and doesn't do anything eye-screwing or silly.

Summary: It's always a nice relaxing evening with decent dancing in comfortable surroundings. As you can tell from the above, I wasn't at my most alert today. The only problems with it are the early closing time and the not-very-nice external location. Quite a few people go to Negracha afterwards, and if you do you can get a discount there.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Where to Find Tango Music

While trying to work out how I could buy a piece of music I liked, I've just found, which is outstanding. Which CD to buy, why, and whether you can actually get it or not, from someone who's listened to them, is exactly what I needed, and he does it really well.

He does seem to have some to sell, although somewhat reluctantly - you have to look at "FAQ" to even find out how it might be possible to buy one. I was clicking away on the pictures, on the point of assuming that the website just wasn't working. No zShops, no Ebay, no service-provder shopping basket, no ecommerce at all. A bit more work from me is order before I reach the rather extreme conclusion that it might be necessary to email someone my address, engage in correspondence, and post a cheque, of all things. I think I last saw my chequebook in the year 2000.

[Correction: another look and a click on what I first assumed to be an advertisement for a milonga shows that you can join a club and set up a standing order. I think this is a pretty good deal and I'll consider it, but I am not a big music buyer, and one CD a month would be a lot for me.]

A bit more digging shows that the one I want is available for purchase as an authorised, high-quality, DRM-less download - and even as individual tracks. It's not nearly as well-designed as the Finnish version which I found first, and the previews don't work (the Finnish ones do), but it will probably do the job.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Sailors' Society Woolly Hat Week

[Edit: my patterns for woolly hats are here and here.] [Edit 2, 9th Jan 2009: the society's website has moved domains and completely scrambled all the links. The address I sent hats to is currently here, but in case the website moves again, it was Sailors' Society, 350 Shirley Road, Southampton, Hampshire, SO15 3HY. They got them, because they sent me a nice letter.]

3rd-9th February is the Sailors' Society Woolly Hat Week. From their website:

"Seafaring is one of the world's most dangerous professions, and 95% of the world's trade is transported by sea. ... The Woolly Hat Campaign provides seafarers arriving in the UK, often ill-prepared for our weather, with hand-knitted hats to keep themselves warm during the many months they are at sea. "
Some hat patterns are provided, but a woolly hat is a woolly hat, so it's hardly necessary.

The Sailors' Society is a religious charity, but as far as I can tell from their site they do not evangelise or use any religious tests, and their religion is a motivation rather than a goal of their work.

I do have a bit of a problem of conscience with helping a religious body to advertise itself to cold and lonely seafarers. I'm happy to endorse their work, but I'm not at all happy about giving any appearance of endorsing the assertions that go with it, which I happen to find unconvincing.

However, the Sailor's Society has an established network of people who distribute hats in winter, and it's the kind of thing I'd like to do. And on the whole, I'm usually against examining too closely people's motivations for doing a thing which is good in itself. So I think I may knit them a hat or two.

The address to send hats to is at the bottom of the pattern but it is the same address as here.
"They who go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep ...
... They mount up to the heaven, they go down agan to the depths:
their soul is melted because of trouble."

Tuesday 15 January 2008


I know other people have blogged this already (thanks both), but I love it. I particularly like it because I remember thinking in my very first tango beginners course that the way my teacher moved reminded me of a kitten encountering its first house-spider.

Monday 14 January 2008

I passed

hedgehog with a First Aid badgeOh yes, I passed my exam on Friday.

This doesn't necessarily mean I'm a good first aider - I've always been good at passing exams. But I got the compliments of the assessors and a sweet little red and green badge. The slightly scary lady said "I've only written one word - Excellent". Which was nice. I think I got extra points for picking up the imaginary knife that the casualty had cut herself on and putting it in an imaginary safe place before I started bandaging the imaginary wound. (With a real bandage).

So now I can save your life if you puncture a lung with one of my prickles.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Mostly Harmless Tangos

They're all part of the fun, but I wonder how many of my species you recognise?

  • Powerpoint tango
  • S ... p ... a ... c ... e ... d ... O ... u ... t ... t ... a ... n ... g ... o (Remember the super-super-super slo-mo when Channel 4 had the cricket?)
  • iPod tango (what are you listening to? Is it good?)
  • Supreme Pontiff tango (I'm just the audience)
  • Motorised Corset tango (please may I breathe when we get where we're going?)
  • Bad Sex tango (noisy, but the ceiling needs painting)
  • Frog-in-a-blender milonga (heels down, heels down, heels down - oops!)
  • 8-step basic vals

I'm getting fewer of them all as my own dancing gets better, but the mildest sense of adventure usually gets you one. A mental taxonomy is my way of dealing with it, although if I get the giggles while I'm actually dancing it can be tricky to explain away. I almost did that once tonight, so I thought I'd spread it around.

My limited experience (following only) doesn't allow me to know what the equivalent follower faults are. I've heard about the wet fish and the kung-fu princess, and I've seen lipstick in some surprising places. I'm almost starting to be tempted to find out.

Thursday 10 January 2008

First Aid at Work

hedgehog holding a bandaidI'm doing a First Aid at Work course this week. My office has just rearranged itself, and there aren't enough qualified First Aiders in the building for the number of people. I volunteered because I'm a gannet for useful knowledge, but now I'm feeling a bit alarmed at the responsibility.

Still, I'd rather know how to do it than not, and the office is paying.

I now know how to dress cuts and burns to the arms, legs, and head, and what to do if someone loses a finger or a tooth; how to make two different sorts of sling; how to identify and treat shock due to loss of blood; what to do if you have angina, a heart attack, a fit, a nosebleed, a blackout, an asthma attack, anaphylactic shock, a broken limb, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, a broken jaw, a head injury, a neck injury, spinal fluid coming out of your ears, heatstroke, hypothermia, hypoglycaemia, hyperglycaemia, or a sucking chest wound; how to tell and what to do if you've had a stroke; where to hit you and squeeze you if you are choking, and how many times to try it before calling the ambulance; how to put you in the recovery position if you're unconscious but still breathing, how to do CPR if you stop breathing, and keep you half-alive till the ambulance arrives, and in what circumstances to remove a crushing object, or a motorcycle helmet, or not to.

It's quite scary.

The only things I can think of that are actually likely to happen in my office are superficial burns from the kettle, and anything brought on by stress. I suppose there's always your basic nut allergy. Or someone could trip over one of those stupid laptop bags and hit their head on a cabinet; or put their eye out with their own pencil. Those could happen.

The exam is tomorrow. I think I'll do OK in the exam, but I'm not sure how I'll remember it all afterwards. Perhaps if I build it into my daydreams? With extra drama and a lively cast of characters freely adapted from real life?

More G&G for comparison

For those of enquiring mind, here's some more Gustavo & Giselle. After Christmas they went to Amsterdam and performed to some of the same pieces of music. If you play this and the London playlist (why not open in a new window and tile them?), you can compare the "Pavadita" in Amsterdam with the one at the Crypt, and the "Don Juan" in Amsterdam with the one at the Dome, although that one's a bit dark. Track list below.

Tracks in Amsterdam - in order - with thanks to 3Oktober for the videos and track names.

  1. Pavadita - De Angelis
  2. Don Juan - Di Sarli
  3. Este es el Rey - Color Tango
  4. Tokio luminoso - Pugilese/Ariel Espandrio
  5. Palomita blanca - Troilo

Their dancing is amazing and I love their taste in music. I am deeply ignorant about music so if you have anything to say about that, comment.

Wednesday 9 January 2008


I've worked in IT for so long now that I just can't bring myself to do anything that resembles a chain letter.

So this is my apology to anyone who sent me a chain-blog and who may feel offended. It has nothing to do with you personally; I just don't do them, ever. It feels Bad and Wrong, and I can't do it, even for you.


Sunday 6 January 2008

How the brain controls the body

Why is it that we (in the broadest sense of 'we') can build a computer that beats grandmasters at chess, but not a robot that manipulates a chess piece with the dexterity of a six-year-old child? And we don't even have any real idea how to start approaching this problem?

How, in fact, does the brain control the body? In this public lecture at the Royal Society, Professor Daniel Wolpert of Cambridge University explains that no-one really has a clue.

I go to scientific lectures whenever I can. I don't think I went to any in 2007 but it's time to start again. There are all sorts of wonderful things out there, and the ones where they tell you what they don't know are often profoundly interesting. This is one. The Royal Society video their public lectures and put an archive on their website, and they're quite often webcast live; you can see the calendar here, and you can subscribe to podcasts.

This is what I thought when I went to this lecture (in 2005 I think it was). There's a kind of spider called the bolas spider. It hunts for moths by making a lassoo of silk with a gob of glue on the end. It whirls the lassoo in the air with one leg, catches a moth, reels it in and eats it. The spider is the size of your thumbnail. How many neurons has the thing got? How does it control its body well enough do all this? Clearly, nature solved the problem of controlling extremely complex movement in an unpredictable world a very, very long time ago. By the time trilobites came along, it had been completely nailed for millions of years. Somehow, it must be simpler than it looks.

But nobody knows how it works. There is lots of data - but there's no theory, says Professor Wolpert. Watch the lecture for more.

He talks a lot about noise and how the nervous system deals with the unpredictable world (we don't know), why animals have brains and plants don't, and why it makes sense that Tiger Woods earns a lot of money.

On looking up the bolas spider, I read that it is very sensitive to vibrations, and responds if you pluck guitar strings at it. Did you know that Charles Darwin played the clarinet to worms, to see what they would do?

Saturday 5 January 2008

Gustavo & Giselle updated

It's new year - back to more dancing. I've updated the playlist of Gustavo & Giselle. If you have video of any of the other three dances at the Dome, or the four at the Welsh Centre, please, please stick it on YouTube and mention it in the Comments.

I saw them at all three venues and they were magic.

I think my favourite so far is the third one from the Crypt. I also like the milonga a lot. It's just so much fun; and it's nice that Michiko with the flowers is included at the end (thanks tanguero2x4). The one from the Dome was great to watch live but it was too dark to video well. But anyway, they're all magic.

[Edit: this currently plays 5 videos:
1 The Dome
2, 3, 4 and 5 The Crypt]

Wednesday 2 January 2008

The dancing-master of Aberdeen

In the year 1742, some influential inhabitants of Aberdeen represented to the Town Council "that the town was at great loss for want of a right dancing master to educate their children". After a certain amount of thought, the Council resolved to advertise for a suitable person, and two candidates presented themselves to show their qualifications to the Magistrates, in front of a crowd of gentlemen and ladies in Trinity Hall.

James Stuart, of Montrose, was found to be better at dancing and teaching, and he was employed; but it seems he was unsatisfactory, for in 1746 the council resolved to advertise again for "a person of sober, discreet and moral character". They soon got a letter from Mr. John Dawney, dancing-master in Edinburgh, recommending as suitable a Mr. Francis Peacock. Apparently he suited the council, and on Valentine's Day of 1747 they made Mr. Peacock, then twenty-three, the official and sole Dancing-Master of Aberdeen during his good behaviour, agreeing to pay him seven shillings sterling per student per month, together with some money to organise the music.

Mr. Peacock seems to have liked Aberdeen, and very promptly married a local young lady and settled down. He taught the inhabitants of Aberdeen to dance; he became a prominent member of the Musical Society; he published books of music, and composed; he painted miniature portraits; he took care of business, became a man of means, was much esteemed in Aberdeen, and built himself Villa Franca, a country house.

Francis Peacock remained the dancing-master of Aberdeen for fifty years. He died in 1807 at the age of eighty-four, giving his name to Peacock's Close, where he had his school. Two years before he died, he had published a manual for teaching dancing, some of which the University of Aberdeen has very public-mindedly republished on its website. Mr. Peacock condemns affectation and gives advice on dress:

In short, any thing rather than gaudy cloaths; for these, at best, are but the trappings of folly, and will never recommend a man to the esteem of people of sense.

An advertisement at the front of the book recites his experience and tells who his tutors were. It also reveals that proceeds from its sales were destined not for Mr. Peacock himself, but for the Aberdeen Lunatic Hospital. How it sold I do not know, but surely it was well.

The above information about Francis Peacock's life is from Aberdeen Street Names, G. M. Fraser, 1911. The dates he gives, from the Council Register, don't quite agree with what the University has, I don't know why.

Why am I telling you this? Because it may please you as much as it pleases me. Here is another extract:

I may here observe, that there cannot be a greater proof of the utility of Dancing, than its being so universally adopted, as a material circumstance in the education of the youth of both sexes, in every civilised country. Its tendency to form their manners, and to render them agreeable, as well in public as in private; the graceful and elegant ease which it gives to the generality of those who practice it with attention, are apparent to everyone of true discernment.

The Lunatic Hospital - now the Royal Cornhill - still exists. As for the question of why city councils no longer employ dancing-masters, in Scotland or anywhere else - well, things have changed, and perhaps they may change again.