Wednesday 31 August 2011

Man in Black

El Greco - Portrait of a nobleman with his hand on his chest
Museo del Prado, Madrid
I have just been re-reading Anne Hollander's Seeing Through Clothes. It's a art-history of European fashion. In it, she mentions this portrait, as an illustration of the history of wearing black, especially with white details. Along with the influence of fashionable clothes on how people paint nudes, and the interaction of how people dress with how they imagine themselves.

In my paperback, this picture is reproduced poorly and in black and white, and I can't tell whether it supports her argument or not.

But now, with a little bit of searching, I can find the picture at its home, the Museo del Prado, Madrid. I can not only see this full-colour reproduction on the left, but zoom to an ultra-high-resolution photograph of the work, and study the wonderful fluid brush-work of the lace, the discreet whorls and touches of colour that suggest the brocaded pattern and the shinyness of the tunic, the transparent blues and yellows of the skin, the confident, airy delicacy of the sword-hilt.

On the same page I can read a description of the work, with a theory about who this man is, and listen to the audioguide with two voices discussing the fame of this picture and how it is seen as embodying an idea of Spanishness.

And not only that - for the very reasonable sum of €10 plus shipping I could order a very high quality A4-sized print (A3 is €20) of the picture for my own personal album of interesting pictures, supposing I had one, perhaps I should, and peruse it on the sofa. I love that museums do this. The National Gallery does it too.

I am just old enough, I suppose, to still think that's amazing. Also, I don't know exactly why he chose these clothes, but I think he looks very serious and very sexy.

Monday 29 August 2011

Transformational and Transactional Politics

If you want to make any significant long-lasting change in any human thing, any community or practice, that is a political act. Whether you want to institute universal healthcare in the USA, minimise match-fixing and spot-fixing in cricket, or replace clowning with dancing in your local milonga, as soon as you really attempt to do something about it, you are fundamentally attempting to do the same sort of thing - on the continent-sized, medium, and microscopic scales respectively. There are many ways of going about it, even on the tiniest scale.

Here, via Naked Capitalism, is an article by Eric T. Schneiderman from 2008. In 2010, Schneiderman was elected attorney-general of New York. Recently, he's been using his powers to investigate bank fraud (which is what he's supposed to do, but for reasons you need some background for, this is widely considered surprising).

Eric Schneiderman: Transforming the Liberal Checklist: Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.
Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year--or five years, or twenty years--will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his "oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion."
I invite you to read both this and the article by Matt Stoller praising Schneiderman that directed me to it. To follow Stoller's completely you'd need a little bit of background about mortgage fraud, but you can get the general idea without it.
Power Politics: What Eric Schneiderman reveals about Obama: A lot of people have asked why New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is going after the banks as aggressively as he is. It’s almost unbelievable that one lone elected official, who happens to have powerful legal tools at his disposal, is doing something that no one with any serious degree of power has done. So what is the secret? What kind of machinations is he undertaking that no one else has been able to do?
I’ve known Schneiderman for a few years, back when he was a state Senator working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws. And my answer to this question is pretty simple. He wants to. That’s it. Eric Schneiderman is investigating the banks because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. So he’s doing it.
...  In all the absurdly stupid punditry, the simple application of free will to our elected officials goes missing. Yeah, Obama got money from Wall Street. But Obama is choosing to pursue a policy of foreclosures and bank bailouts not because of any grand corporate scheme. He just wants to. He thinks it’s the right thing to do, and he’s doing it. If you don’t think it’s the right thing to do, then you shouldn’t be disappointed in him any more than you might have been disappointed in Bush.
I think there are valuable insights in both of those, that we can all use in our tiny lives.

Milonga 8

EDIT January 2012: This milonga lost its venue over Christmas and has now MOVED to a new venue near London Bridge. I haven't tried this yet.

This is an under-new-management version of a milonga that already existed but I never got around to trying. It's at 8 Hop Gardens, off St Martin's Lane, near Leicester Square, WC2N 4EH. It's now running every Friday from 21:30 to 02:00, organised by Grant.

Update: on second and third visits, I found much better lighting, which made it much easier to get dances, and I also found more of them there to get.

The Class: There isn't always a class before the milonga. On this occasion there was, but I didn't attend it. Classes at various levels are listed on the website.

Layout and Atmosphere: You come in through a corridor and down some steps, and it's just what it says on the door, a Quaker meeting hall. It's a very nice rectangular space, fairly small, with seating along two sides, one side being a low, long platform with small tables and red tablecloths, and the other a long broad bench. I think it's nearly the ideal size and shape for a small milonga; if you were having a meeting you'd be able to discuss things across the room without needing to raise your voice, but it's not cramped. Beyond the tablecloths, I don't think anything else had been done to the room to make it more milonga-ish. There's a quite beautiful big window at the end where the DJ is, with what looks rather like some sort of giant grass outside, and the refreshment and chillout room, actually a library, is at the other end. The floor is very nice, wooden, smooth, and not slippery or sticky. It's too dark for getting dances to be easy, but not extreme or darker than is usual for London. The Quaker pamphlets in the library are quite intriguing if you feel like having a nose around; I noticed that, for Quakers, "advice" is a countable noun with a plural, "advices". I've never ever heard a native English speaker use that - it must be a sixteenth-century survival, how interesting.

Hospitality: Very good. A selection of teas, coffees and soft drinks is laid out in the refreshment room with proper mugs, and included in the price, so you help yourself. The loos are roomy, clean and well-lit and have rather spiritual notices about living in peace with the world and switching off the lights. The venue doesn't allow alcohol to be served. At the entrance to the hall, where the desk is, there's a nice long line of coathooks where you can leave your stuff, and because refreshments are included you don't need to take anything inside and have it be on the floor getting in the way. So I left my bag there, zipped inside my coat.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Just social dancing. And there don't seem to be any plans for performances, which is a major plus as far as I'm concerned, your preference may vary.

What I thought of the DJing: DJs vary, check the schedule. This time it was Mehmet, who played 100% traditional in tandas with cortinas. I was fine with most of the tandas. The cortinas were too short to really clear the floor, and people didn't, which added to the difficulty of getting dances and the tendency to stick with fixed partners. They also use Ewa Zbrezska, whose music I get on with fine. Under the previous management there was a lot of later music, like there is for the Thursday practica - that seems to have changed.

Getting in: £8, or an even more reasonble £7 if you join as a member (you also get a login to the website, but I don't know what's on the other side of logging in).

Getting there and getting home: Take Exit 1 from Leicester Square tube. Turn left, so you are passing the Garrick Theatre, and take the second left (which is a street of bookshops and art shops). When you come out at the other end, you'll see Hop Gardens is just a little to your right across the road, with a Gym Box on the corner. Cross carefully - watch out for near-silent bicycle rickshaws, drunk pedestrians and, at the time of writing, a huge hole in the road. The building you want is the Quaker Meeting House, which is on your left. Press the labelled bell, and wait for someone to come and open the door. Trains go from Leicester Square till about half past midnight, but it's open later and doesn't start to fill up till about 11. There are numerous night buses nearby, and if you already know the way home from Carablanca or Negracha, you are pretty close to there anyway. The only problem is the buses can get full at 2am, so dress warmly if you're going to do this, you might have to wait a while.

The website: - nicely presented, does the job and gives you a nice, accessible list of events, practicas and classes at the same venue, as well as the milonga. Well-written and includes an accurate, properly-configured embedded Google map.

How it went: I'd gone there specifically to meet two people I really love dancing with, so I can't really assess how well it would have gone under other conditions. It's small. The crowd was rather young. Most of the dancing was not really my style, and required a lot of space in proportion to the size of the room. But that was by no means true of all of it, and at least some of it was high quality, especially after 11pm. The floor was pretty orderly if you took space requirements into account. Because it's small, I'd want to arrange for at least one or two likely partners to be there. However, it might be a good choice for the more experienced visitor, especially if you can live with a wide range of styles.

It's easy for me to reach, with a straightforward route home even if I stay till 2am. I really liked the room, I was ok with the music, and I liked the price, especially with the bonus of no performance and a cup of tea included. I think I'd find it difficult to get the dances I wanted, because of the darkness and people not clearing the floor, but I can adapt to that, given the small size of the room. I will definitely consider it as an alternative to my usual place on occasions when it has a better DJ or my usual place has a performance, especially if I can overcome the style problem by persuading one or two regular partners to join me despite the absence of beer.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

IWantSomeOfThose brainwave-controlled cat ears

Yes, brainwave-controlled cat ears. They're hilarious and I really, really want some. I want to know what happens if I wear them and try to dance. I think they would go up most of the time, and down if I really got into the zone. Or maybe they'd go round and round and round ("concentrating and relaxed"). The awkward sensor would be a problem, but it's possible they'll make it less awkward by the time it goes on retail sale.

They don't actually appear to be on retail sale, even in Japan, so they might remain vapourware for another year, or indefinitely. But there is just so much fun to be had with these.

As far as I can tell, the outer layer is just fake fur, so it should be pretty easy to remove and replace with something better. The clever part, if they've actually done it, is that there's a bit more miniaturisation of the EEG sensor equipment, relative to existing commercial toys, although I'm not sure why more of the bulky electronics aren't hidden inside the ears. A fashion product, no matter how wacky, needs to look better. After doing a little reading, I'm also somewhat sceptical about how far the ears are controlled by real changes in the brain and how responsive they are to random electrical noise in the environment, and also about whether it would work at all on a person who was moving, rather than standing still. But it looks like it should work at least to some degree.

The brand name is "Necomimi" which as far as I can figure out with help from Google Translate, means "cat ears", although there might be a bit more to it, since the characters it comes up with are not the same as those at the top of the video. Fair enough.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Dancecraft and tarot

There are some people
for whom the gentle brownian motion of a flowing ronda
is such an important input to their improvisation
that if you take them out of a moderately busy dancefloor and make them do a 'demo'
their dance seems formless, at a loose end, or goes a little off the rails ...

It must be a bit like that static feeling of "I need input!" when the mind is paralysed with possibilities and can't make a decision.

... Is this person for me?
... Should I accept this job offer?
... Who is the right choice to bat at no. 3?
... Shall I go there tonight, or not?

Practically any input will do, but it needs the right amount of randomness, if it's too chaotic it just makes more stress. The classic example is tossing a coin - because once it's in the air, you'll know which way you want it to come down.

Tarot and many similar procedures serve the same function. With a skilled, empathic practitioner it's completely unnecessary for either the client or the practitioner to believe in the efficacy of the ritual as such, or accept any of its claims. Some people can make up rituals on the spot. All the procedure does, is provide just the right sort of random inputs that people need to discover what it is that they already think or want.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Two good feelings

1. When you haven't seen each other for a while and the embrace feels like it is quietly hungry to dance with you.
2. When they feel like they don't really want to break it at the end of the tanda - nothing sleazy, not at all - just taking it gently. Some people feel like they are mentally clearing up the feeling and putting it away on a shelf, others like they are just leaving it there like a Tracey Emin art project and tiptoeing away. I like both.

Monday 8 August 2011

It's wierd round here

Very wierd. Going very quietly to bed  ...

[yeah it's misspelled. I think it looks better my way]


You may have seen one of those science articles in the news, about opinions. It was not an experiment with people, but a computer experiment modelling three types of social network with different properties concerning how the nodes were connected to each other.

The summary at Livescience reflects all the others reported elsewhere.

In all cases, a few people within the network held an unwavering, but uncommon, belief; everyone else held a traditional view but was open-minded. They found that, regardless of the type of network, 10 percent remained the threshold required to shift the majority opinion once the true believers began to speak with everyone else.
Now, I was a bit sceptical of this - if you dig for the actual journal article this kind of report is based on, it often turns out to say absolutely nothing of the kind. So I did the digging, and Google Scholar found me the article. It doesn't seem to be in the journal that Livescience said it was, but the authors have previous articles in that journal, so perhaps it will be. You can nearly always find them, anyway, if you have the authors' names and the year.
Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities
J. Xie, S. Sreenivasan, G. Korniss, W. Zhang, C. Lim, B. K. Szymanski We show how the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction p of randomly distributed committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence. Specifically, we show that when the committed fraction grows beyond a critical value p_c \approx 10%, there is a dramatic decrease in the time, T_c, taken for the entire population to adopt the committed opinion ...
For the time being you can actually download the whole thing in PDF, I had to skip over the mathematical parts but I know some readers won't need to, and might be interested.

The acknowledgement of military funding at the end is interesting, and tells me that this research was seen, at least by the US military, as possibly useful in practice. But then, I've heard they felt the same about staring at goats. My question would have been "what happens if you have 10% committed agents to each opinion?" But they don't discuss that.

Anyway. It's not clear to me that they're saying anything about anything outside a computer. But socially speaking, based on my personal experience within various little communities, I find the story plausible.

Obviously, they're not asking whether it matters if the 'opinion' has any merits. But on reflection, I wouldn't be very surprised to discover that, in as far as real life reflects this, the merits of the case made little difference after persuading the first 10%.

My first thought was, 10% seems fairly low. But on reflection, 10% seems very high for true commitment - for people who are really certain, won't shut up, and can't be persuaded. That's not so common.

If you get to 10% of some community really committed to some idea, that probably means you've already persuaded enough relatively normal people that it stops mattering if some of the first 1% were sociopathic loons who constantly went around making people want to avoid sharing their opinions. Indeed, the role of cocks, bores, witterers, malicious obsessives, and the variously deranged in disseminating both bad and good ideas surely deserves some careful empirical study, along with the different roles of other familar social types such as the Nice Person.

The digging process led me, incidentally, to two social-psychology articles about the process of persuasion and the relationship between the merits of the arguments, the qualities of the source, and whether people think it is a majority or minority opinion:

When credibility attacks: The reverse impact of source credibility on persuasion


The effects of majority versus minority source status on persuasion: A self-validation analysis

But, having read them, I won't trouble you with their arguments. They didn't convince me that their experiments meant anything.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Hello Dance Today Readers

Hi there! And thanks to Dance Today for the recommendation! I haven't got a copy of the current edition, so I don't know what they said exactly. But the best place to start is probably the Favourites on the right -->.

If you want to go dancing, you'll find milonga reviews further down, and if location is important to you, start with the updated map and zoom out as much as you like.

Here are all my posts that I think are likely to help tango beginners. If you're thinking of taking your first class, the most useful might be the Beginners' Questionnaire. If you're working out what you think tango is, have a browse through the tag list, also on the right.


Monday 1 August 2011


I don't usually post anything about forthcoming events, because where would it stop, but I really like Andreas's class descriptions, and this is the sort of workshop that people swear never exists, and tediously moan about the non-existence of. So it just seems worthwhile to post this and point out that it does exist, and you can get it if you really want it.

DISCLOSURE: Andreas is a friend of mine. I usually take his small-group workshops, and I like them, but I'm not taking this one 'cause I'm going to be in Folkestone.

Intensive Small Group Workshop
in London Saturday 6th August 2011:
A 3+ hour small group workshop (a maximum of 5 couples!) with Andreas Wichter.

Floorcraft should not put limits on your dance. It should enhance, inform and shape your dance. The underlying skill - what I call "dancecraft" - is what allows you to bring your steps to life, change them at will and to improvise freely so you can interpret the music, while being connected to everyone in the ronda.

The "Dancecraft" workshop contains numerous exercises to help free you from the shackles of memorized or ingrained sequences, improve improvisational ability, and incorporate other couples' movements on the floor into your dance in a positive manner.

In this 3+ hour class we will look at integrating floorcraft skills with the demands of expression and musicality. There will be numerous exercises for precise leading and following and variation of turns and other elements to meet the demands of fluctuating space on the floor as well as that of the music.

With the aim of letting the flow of the ronda shape our dance, we will work on flexible turning skills to make and change turns and direction changes on the fly. For shaking off the shackles of routine, we will have some improvisation exercises to enable us to change any step at any time to fit the situation.

Please book with a partner.

Solid basic skills (posture, embrace, walking, parallel & crossed system transitions, turns) are required.
Saturday 6th August
The Room
33 Holcombe Road N17 9AS Tottenham Hale
13:00 - 17:00 (includes short breaks)
max 5 couples, £45 per person
Location Info:
If you want to take it though, you need to get in touch with Andreas (andreas AT tangokombinat DOT de) immediately. Get on his mailing list or ask to join the facebook group if you want future dates. As I say, this is an exception, I'm not going to announce them here.

I can't decide quite what it is I like about the class descriptions - they're so careful. And in real life he's so funny.

[Edit in response to a comment: in terms of level, my rule of thumb on what the above means would be that if you (as your half of the couple) can't already do a complete turn without needing to open the embrace at all, you're going to be struggling in most of Andreas's small-group workshops. He does always briefly cover posture and embrace at the start, but dancing comfortably in an uninterrupted close embrace is a basic necessary skill in his world, not an advanced skill. If the class is specifically about that, of course that's different.]

Rectifying ten-year 180° errors

It struck me this weekend what a difficult position people are in when, based on new information, they suddenly decide that what they have been "dancing" exactly the same way for years on end is not actually tango at all (I guess this might apply to other dances too, but let's stick to what I know) but something else entirely, and that, actually, they think that actual tango is much more interesting and generally better and they would really, really like to be dancing that instead.

For example, they decide to stop running around like a deaf psychotic spider, blaming their partners for everything that otherwise-inexplicably doesn't work well, and start dancing like a rational being who can walk on two legs and detect emotional content in music. This is suprisingly not-that-unusual. Ampster describes many only slightly smaller epiphanies very vividly.

But, in practical terms, it really must be a very tricky situation if you don't have somebody sharing the road with you like Ampster does. Changing established physical habits takes time and work. It means a lot of temporary failures. If you want to maintain a radical change of posture and embrace and movement for more than a few minutes, you're going to need constant practice and well-informed feedback. And that means that you're going to need new partners.

The people who danced with you before are at least willing to dance your old dance. Under the circumstances, that probably means that they aren't, at the moment, even able to dance your new dance (if you're right that the new one is better, then if they were, they would have been doing it already, and not dancing with you. Logic). The people who can dance your new dance, on the other hand, probably know what dance you've always danced. They already know to avoid dancing with you, because the chances are it's a bad experience for them and a pointless exercise; and it's going to take quite an effort to convince them to go anywhere near you.

This is not an easy problem, but it certainly is solvable, because lots of people have solved it over the years. I suppose there are two obvious options, and you could even try both at once:

  1. Change your regular milonga. Most of your regular partners will stay at the old one (you can always go back there to see friends) and at least some of the people at the new one won't remember you.
  2. Change your style of dress. This is the strongest possible signal that you have made a decision to change your dance.  It also goes very well with a change of posture. The sudden appearance or disappearance of a jacket and tie is powerful magic. For women, changing style is more complicated.
Obviously you could also talk about your experience and thoughts, which might make sympathisers come out of the woodwork who are willing to take a bit of a risk to bring somebody in their direction; and it might also persuade them that you won't blame them for your difficulties. [Edit: some better ideas in the comments].

I should think it takes a lot of patience and a lot of work. But if you're making that kind of decision, then you're deciding it's worth it.