Tuesday 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Have a very merry mid-winter fire festival of your choice - or a convivial midsummer barbeque, for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere.

But if you are not happy, it's probably not because you needed reminding to do it. 
I've posted it before, but:

If you have enjoyed this blog, please consider supporting Centrepoint or No Second Night Out.

Monday 23 December 2013

Jade Vase

There hasn't been any knitting for ages. I started to make this a year ago then got a bit discouraged, forgot about it, and finished it when I came back from Buenos Aires.

It continues my idea of objects from an imaginary archeological dig in an imaginary tomb. Pottery is both fragile and exceedingly long-lasting, but textiles hardly ever survive. The previous object so discovered in my brain was the Leaf Amphora, and before that there was the Aran Vase. Like the Aran vase, this one has little feet made with bobbles. Although they're not needed to make this shape stand - it has a flat base - I've used them to start the lines of rib and give it a little extra structure.

Inside the jade vase
 I considered putting some sort of reinforcement inside, but in the end I didn't. It stands up and maintains it squarish shape very well just from being blocked around a square plastic water bottle.

This light green cotton has a lovely glossy sheen, and it reminds me of the jade which is found in the ancient tombs of China. Nobody is quite sure what a jade bi was for, but they are often found.
Jade vase
To see all the knitting and crochet posts, click http://mshedgehog.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/knitting%20and%20crochet.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Argentine Tango for TV Viewers

So, I interrupted the series of posts from my trip to Buenos Aires to work for a solid week on a video-illustrated explanation of what Argentine Tango is, for people who've only seen it on Strictly Come Dancing.

I have no problem with Strictly Come Dancing or its children like Dancing With the Stars or Ballando con le stelle and so on. But they have limitations, and we can't really complain if they give people a wrong picture of tango. If people are curious, it's up to us to take that opportunity, and if they're not curious, that's their affair.

I've made it a page, instead of a post, for ease of reference. This is a bit of an experiment. It's linked in the menu at the top ^^, or you can click here, and come back to the blog by clicking Home.

I had to cut out loads of stuff to make it not too overwhelming. I hope I didn't edit out too many of the good bits. Perhaps people will ask questions and I can blog them. It's still quite long, and has some lovely videos. I really hope it will help both people who want to know what tango is, and people who want to explain it to them. Please feel free to send the link around.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Men At Work, Art and Flowers

Very beautiful gardens on an island in the Tigre delta, with a gardener at work among the irises.

Irises, with figure
The gardens were full of sculptures. This is Twelve Chairs of Harmony, with Brazilian Tourists and a Gardener. (The Brazilian Tourists part is only a temporary supra-installation. Not sure about the gardener).

Twelve Chairs of Harmony
 This one says "tenemos el poder de elegir", which means "we have the power to choose".

Tenemos el poder de elegir
Here it is seen from the other direction, with two blokes tending the very large number of David Austin "English" hybrid roses. The roses smelled amazing.

Rose Gardeners

I think this is obviously an enormous penguin, but the guide said I was the first person who had ever said that.

Enormous Penguin

This house, on another estate we passed on the journey, belonged to an interesting President (I think this one). For that reason, a giant glass case has been built around it.

The moon really looks quite different seen from the other way up, although you might not notice if you hadn't looked carefully at the markings before. My camera is not the right kind to take pictures of the moon, so this is the best I could do.

Wednesday 4 December 2013


VivaLaPepa, Sunday I think.
Danced quite a bit. Very informal, pretty good place to just jump in and get some sort of start (and it helped to be with a group). Very young, very very bumpy. Crowded. Surprising performance by famous middle-aged couple who repeated one of the numbers with minimal alteration, apart from not kicking the audience the second time.

La Viruta - I think also Sunday, later. It probably matters which night you go, sorry, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it was Sunday after the Pepa one.
Club-style, very dark, don't bother if if you're not with a group, but hit the two-for-one capirinhas with some mates, and you're all set. Probably not a bad place to be seen around though.

La Piccola at a new venue, no idea where and can't remember what day, probably Monday or Tuesday but totally confused now.
Great start at finding partners in the traditional format. Good find was DJ man, one of favourites, v v musical. Quietish. Liked the venue. Traditional, segregated seating, therefore cabeceo, but it's OK to dance with a lady occasionally.

That very small one, forgot its name, probably Diez (10) on Monday or Tuesday
Young, small, informal. Mix of strategies but cabeceo works fine. Had a ball throwing crazy nuevo shapes. They were well thrown, much better than they generally are here, and musically, so I enjoyed this. Some youngsters could do with more shirts, though. Good to be with a group.

Cochabamba444, Wednesday I think.
Described to me as a tango dive, and that was a pretty good description. Basically a bar where people dance, kind of like Happy Days but crowded and everybody dancing tango. Loads of historical stuff on the walls, a bit like they have in theatreland restaurants here. Close embrace, very sticky floor (the only one - all others were on the slippery side), very crowded, bumpy. Interesting. Really interesting. Mixture of invitation styles. Attention started to wear me out. Hid in notebook. Was approached by friend-of-friend, a journalist, who wanted to know if I was one of these anthropologists. No, I was writing a vegetable shopping list because I wanted a break. Couple of nice dances, delightful dance and conversation with journalist, sorry to miss out on promised milonga with him but left with friend. In a funny way this evening was very inspiring to my imagination.

Cachirulo (Saturday at Obelisco)
Great space, apparently purpose-built (check it out on YouTube), and more or less the ideal shape and size, with very few poor seats. Bit bumpy. Lengthy announcement threatening to expel offenders, to disapproval of some as I later found. Formal, segregated seating, cabeceo (obviously), well lit and appointed. Fascinating mix of personalities. Rock and roll, salsa, chacarera, mad party atmosphere. On my second visit somebody actually rock-and-rolled themselves to a horizontal position on the floor, accidentally I'm sure. Whole thing insanely entertaining, highly efficient night out. Managed to make first ever Spanish witticism - probably incorrect, but certainly understood. In my opinion, much better to be 'sola' or with a female friend than with a group; groups have the only difficult seats. Memo: Try to remember to take small amount of money to the loos.

El Beso on Sunday (I think - Susanna's?).
Traditional. Overlapping crowd with Cachirulo at both its locations, and La Piccola. The room is a slightly odd shape, with a couple of pillars, and a lot of tricky seats, but it's also quite small, so you can work around things a bit. A seat in back row near the bar was recoverable by working the room on first visit. Once they clock you, they look for you - keep your eyes open and let them take care of it.

Cachirulo (Tuesday at El Beso)
Similar crowd. I have the impression that women tend to arrive at different times, and leave when satisfied; it's the men who stay all evening. This would make sense as a response to the imbalance of numbers. The Obelisco one might be a better choice for a first try, because of the easier layout. Memo: turn right at the top of the stairs before you buy your ticket, it's where the loos are, and you can change your shoes before going in, which is much easier in this particular case. For this and all hardcore traditional milongas, once you have found the entrance you are okay; hover holding your ticket and let them sort you out.

The one with Sexteto Milonguero just up the road from El Beso, the name escapes me, it was an anniversary for the milonga. [Edit: found the ticket, it was Porteno y Bailarin, Riobamba 345]
I think this must have been after the Tuesday Cachirulo. Two dance floors, mixed seating, informal. I'm not really that into this band, but sat with two friendly Swiss guys and danced one track of live music and one or two recorded. It was a fun event but I was honestly more interested in a beer and a natter at this point.

Milongueando en el 40 (Wednesday at Obelisco)
Had a really really nice time on both visits, hardly stopped dancing while I was there despite a rather painful foot on the first visit. Lighting a bit lower than on Saturday, which made it a bit tricky for some. Quiet, but good. Excellent Pugliese tanda and some interesting dancing generally.
Also, a pizza was abandoned, or at least wolfed very rapidly, in my favour. He was my favourite. Bugger, he's not on Facebook. Probably for the best. I was told I was the only foreigner there (it wasn't crowded), but the lady next to me was a USAmerican.

Lujos at El Beso (Thursday)
Got on v well, similar crowd to both the Obelisco ones, big overlap with La Piccola too. The woman who organises this is poetry in motion, and also the printed tickets are really pretty. I have kept quite a few milonga tickets and thinking I might do some sort of decoupage. Counted the last one mentally as the last milonga of my stay, since I knew the planned outing on the Friday probably wouldn't be my thing, and had a wonderfully indulgent evening with affectionate goodbyes, more repeat dances than I usually would have, and a kindly lift home.

Lujos at Plaza Bohemia, forgotten the day. Possibly Sunday but I'm not sure.
Liked this space a lot less - big and square - but it's OK. At this stage I was having terrible trouble keeping track of all the new faces, especially with the changing contexts. I was with a couple of female friends and by comparing notes we discovered that one of us, not me, had been mistaking two men for each other for over a year, with unfortunate consequences since only one of them was an arsehole. I made a mistake or two in choice of music and partner combination, but had a good time. We went somewhere else after, I think to El Beso, so it was probably Sunday.

La Baldosa on Friday
Civilised, sat with a group, dancing style very very 'salon' which is honestly just not really my personal thing (the event as a whole reminded me strongly of Tango South London, only the room at TSL is much smaller and in my opinion rather nicer - this one is very grey), but I danced the chacarera with pleasure.

Best compliment (in very carefully constructed English) (and if you ignore the pizza - it is something for a woman to be prized above pizza)
"You make me a better dancer".


Monday 2 December 2013

Photoshop Disasters

Needing a laugh today, I bring you an authentic photoshop disaster.

Buy our tango shoes, and your right breast will detach from your body and fly away? Barely to be restrained by drapery, and both hands?

Wait, why?
What does the drapery mean? I don't know.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Customs and Language and Dancing (Long)

I had had two theatre things recommended to me, but I didn't get there. When I wasn't dancing I mostly wanted to be outside in the sunshine. It is wonderful to be in Spring for three weeks when it is about to be Winter back home.
I don't speak Spanish very well, although I understand quite a bit and can make myself understood for simple things, and the occasional more interesting thing with people who already know me otherwise. But it is so interesting to feel the low-level steps of acquiring a language. In seven days I had reached a point where I sometimes gave a correct or at least comprehensible answer, to a simple question or command, and only afterwards understood consciously what both of us had said.

The general sound is very like Italian, for obvious historical reasons, and if you get confused and speak Italian, which I did more than once, a lot of people will be able to guess what you wanted to say.
This works totally fine in the formal milongas, given that all you are there to do is dance, and any more general socialisation, coordination, banter, or exchange of ideas with the men involved is customarily arranged and executed by other means. Three weeks is not long enough for someone like me to figure out the customary ways of doing all that (other than the obvious - Facebook), so it is not going to happen. The only exception was a fascinating tour of parts of the city with the friend of a friend, who I had been introduced to by email beforehand.

The result, for me, was an entertaining, extremely simple, and efficient night out. The women sitting beside me were always perfectly friendly, and were happy to exchange information and the usual sorts of remarks and minor mutual assistance, in whatever way we could make ourselves understood. Mutual assistance is often needed when you leave your table to dance, since the women's tables and chairs are crammed extremely close together. The men seem to have more room; perhaps there are fewer of them.

As for getting dances, my way of doing it at the encuentros worked for me without any alteration at all, to the apparent satisfaction of everyone. I danced a lot - every other tanda, sometimes more, sometimes less - and once I felt satisfied, I had no hesitation in going home to bed. I only once stayed to the end - a nice side benefit of not really knowing anyone.

So the thing to plan for is getting the first dance. Arriving for the first time with the lady I was staying with helped; the previous introduction was also much appreciated; but having found my way around, I was perfectly fine on my own. You can get a bad seat or a good seat, but this only matters for the first visit. Once a few partners recognise you, it doesn't appear to matter a damn where you sit, they know where you are, and will be looking. At Obelisco, a new venue used by more than one milonga, there are not many poor single seats. At El Beso, also used by several, there are.

And again, if you're a regular at the European encuentros, and very probably the marathons, you're highly likely to know at least one or two faces. I did, at all of the busier milongas. And failing that, a calm glow and a smile would probably work too, perhaps with a little patience.

Even if you were only a regular of the traditional-style milongas in the M4 corridor, I think you would still have no problems with any of the essentials; you have to know that the woman is expected to remain seated until the man is actually right there and can't really get much closer, but there is a very high chance you already do this anyway.

At the "young" or "informal" milongas, people used a wide range of personal mixtures of looking, nodding, and asking, exactly like they do everywhere else. Given the shortage of time, I tweaked my personal mix in the direction of dancing more, gaining information, and getting started, then I dialled the mix back when it started to stress me out.

I visited at least four different types of milongas during my stay. They felt radically different from each other, and some were quite unique in quite different ways. My impression was that the scene is very diverse, and the differences give you a real choice. I stuck to my strengths and saved time by concentrating on the most traditional, but I'm glad that the social side of where I was staying led me to some others as well.

It clarified my ideas a little about what I appreciate most in a dance, and what other people appreciate about mine. I enjoyed throwing shapes at Milonga 10, and also had some very nice dances; good following is certainly appreciated there. It's also appreciated at the traditional milongas, but my more intimate and inward dance is appreciated more as well. I most appreciate partners who connect with the music emotionally, are physically able to express that, and want the same from me. I don't mind if they sing in my ear.

They are very good at being appreciative, in surprisingly coherent and specific ways. Sometimes with a English sentence, constructed in advance with the most touching care, and delivered like a rose.

If I were there for longer, but was still there mainly to dance, I'd might end up going for a mix of the hard-core-traditional, the slightly less formal traditional ones like La Piccola, which unfortunately I was only able to visit once, and a bit of the 10/Pepa kind of thing. However, although there were one or two partners I was very sorry to say goodbye to, and there was certainly potential to find more over time, I felt no desire to actually stay longer. It's a great place to be a tourist.

My first dance in Buenos Aires was with a woman, at Viva La Pepa.

I would never have guessed from anyone's description how crazily entertaining Cachirulo is. It's a hoot.

Anyway. No special instructions were necessary anywhere, the main challenges most of the time were just finding my way there (solved with the very cheap taxis, which swarm like bees, pollinating all the businesses of Buenos Aires), finding the actual door (easier than it is here, because the venues have lit-up names), finding the small-value notes to pay entrance, not losing the raffle ticket, getting in and out of my seat without tangling in the tablecloth, and correctly pronouncing something I wanted to drink ("una tónica" being a very safe fallback).

A couple of miscellaneous things I really noticed in the traditional milongas:
  1. Most people don't start dancing until well into the first song of the tanda. The introduction and statement-of-theme is used for greetings, compliments, and conversation. Those who do, usually dance on the spot rather than overtaking.
  2. At the end of the tanda, you find yourself already back within a couple of metres of where you started at least 60% of the time. When you think about it, it does make sense, as they started in the right relative positions and mostly at the same time (because they didn't move until well into the first song), and all they have to do is adjust the speed a little in the last track. And there's no reason for the man not to do so, as it saves him an unnecessary walk.
There were two things I didn't know that I wished I did:
  1. How to dance acceptable rock-and-roll, because all the traditional milongas play at least one fairly long section and it's really fun (I am happy to sit down for salsa).
  2. How you get a partner for the chacarera - because all the traditional milongas do that too, and I really like dancing chacarera. I only danced it once.

Monday 25 November 2013

What's this then?

I decided to find out where something important was, and what it looked like, by walking there and looking at it. On the way, I encountered this. It looks like a cross between the V&A and the Medici Chapels - not the Michelangelo one (although that is impressively weird in its own way), but the 16th Century ones with all the coloured marble. Plus palm trees and roses.

Walk, walk, wait, what?

Here's a stepped-back view, for context. It's on the other side of the street from the Heisenberg thing.
Just a minute!
After a bit of boggling, and pondering various features, it came to me that I had read or heard about this, or something like it, somewhere, and that it might have had something to do with drains.

The sign was not a forwarding address, as I briefly understood it, but simply means that the front door is on the much less important-looking street around the corner. Which was going my way anyway, so I continued.

Please direct correspondence around the corner

I knew the style was somehow V&A - it's covered in 40,000 Royal Doulton tiles. It's a water pumping station, the fruiting body of a vast mycelium of pipes under Buenos Aires.
Decorative tiles supplied to your requirements - by Royal Doulton
And they built it like this because  otherwise, the public of 1894 would have had nothing to look up to and admire, and might not have properly appreciated the engineering and logistical achievement of clean running water for the big city at the end of the Earth, or related it to the drastic reduction of yellow fever and typhoid.

Down with typhoid and yellow fever! Rejoice!

This is a way of thinking neglected, perhaps unjustly, in our times.

There is actually a guided tour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but I missed it because I was always asleep. There's also this statue of The Keen and Friendly Sanitation Worker Who Has Finished His Lunch:
Clean moustache and spanner, good to go
Palacio de Aguas Corrientes - Water and Sanitation Museum

Saturday 23 November 2013

And At Houses

A house is such an ordinary thing, but they are so different everywhere. All the houses my parents have lived in together were smaller or bigger versions of a single design, which for perhaps a century around 1900 was a popular, common, and pretty good design for a comfortable house that's suitable for the English climate.

It has bay windows (if you can afford them, and especially if they can face southwards) for maximum light, and a big block of brick down an inside wall (a wall shared with the next house) to retain heat from multiple fireplaces. Every room has some sort of window, and the nicest room is the one with the nicest window. There is a sloping roof for the rain to trickle off, and a back door, usually opening from the kitchen. There is a little bit of space behind the house, where you grow grass, flowers, or vegetables as inclination or necessity drives, and (if you can afford it) a smaller bit in front. In past times the toilet would also be out there, then they came inside and were put upstairs. If you can afford it, there might be two front doors with a little porch in-between, keeping warmth in and mud out. The house is on two floors, with the bedrooms upstairs (although around here, few can afford a whole house, so most are divided into two or more awkward flats).

The house I stayed in, however, was a completely different design, with all the large, cool, windowless rooms opening off a terrace or all-around balcony that was originally open-walled and now has large, openable cloud-glass windows. The tremendous rain runs quickly down drains in the flat roof terrace and on the balconies - and, if necessary, down the front steps, which are marble, a storey high, and have a wrought-iron door that opens directly onto the street. The neighbouring dwelling is underneath it, follows the same shape, and has its own door. There is no other entrance or exit. There are similar-looking houses in Paris, but I've never actually been inside one.

Outside my room:

Little Suitcase

Thursday 21 November 2013

Me and Charles Darwin look at Streets

The almost-perfectly regular grid pattern, give or take a few forks and mergers, is still there. The streets and the pavements are wide. One consequence is that a corner is a more planned and deliberate thing than it is at home, and there is a particular style of unofficial embellishment which appears on many of them:

Corner embellishments
Similar symbols appeared above the corner shop near the house I stayed in, and above many other corner businesses. I don't know what they mean. The photo above also happens to include the only Ginger person I saw during my stay.

My first impression, in the taxi from the airport, was that the city had been dropped in an enormous park.
This doesn't seem to happen any more.
I can't swear they weren't there. We were probably going too fast.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

How certain are they?

When I saw this, I read it as an ingenious and funny reference to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. But now I'm told it's just a reference to a TV show. (It might still be ingenious and funny, but I don't watch much TV, so I don't know. It might not.)

"Heisenberg - Live free or die"
More postcards follow.

My other favourite was the message on the back of a kiosk selling magazines, sweets, mobile phone credit, and whatnot. I didn't take a photograph because my internal risk manager declined to get the camera out, but it read:


Which is German, and means:


Friday 25 October 2013

Out of Office Message

My Out of Office is on. OoOo! I'm on holiday.

I might post (especially from the drafts file) and moderate comments, but the chances are not much. If you want to hear when I'm back without having to keep checking, try subscribing to the RSS feed or by email, various buttons on the right -->

Got to write a note for the house-sitter ...


Preferences for Teachers

A commenter on another post made an important remark which I think is worth promoting (I edit because I don't want to single out that particular teacher in what I'm about to say. I don't think I am misrepresenting the comment in any way):

"... as a result of ... harsh(ish) style and poor(ish) reviews the thin skinned stay away ... If you don’t want any meaningful feedback go to a handful of other classes where the teachers are kind and smile and say “so much better” all the time."

I agree with the need for meaningful feedback. This is important in a teacher. But personally, I prefer above all a teacher who knows what good dancing is, can dance well, has carefully thought through, worked on, and tested their approach to teaching, and treats the students like intelligent adults. Criticism and praise are useful tools in as far as they help achieve results. Good advice is much more important than either.

In my opinion, someone who cannot give useful feedback while being courteous to other people and making efforts to put them at ease is by that fact poorly qualified to teach anything to anyone, but least of all social tango, a broad skill-set of which good manners and behaviour are an indispensable part. And no qualification of any kind excuses poor results.

Bottom line: if you care about results, it is your responsibility to make them happen - by choosing your teacher, among other things. If you don't care about content or results, you can freely indulge any preference you have as to the box it comes in. Such things are widely available at very reasonable fees.

Monday 21 October 2013

Here's a thing about performances

I wrote a really ranty post and left it in draft because I couldn't quite find the right tone; and then I discussed it with Carole the Photographer, who knows a lot more about two relevant subjects than I do - dance-as-performance, and Argentine culture. It turns out there might be a really nasty cross-cultural "gotcha" here. Which is more interesting than rants. [Edit: she was really talking about stage shows ,not shows in milongas, see comments, but I actually think it's relevant because the kind of performance I'm talking about acts like a stage show and forgets that it's in a milonga.]

So here to begin with is my very British rant - which probably a lot of Europe would agree with - and which represents how I actually feel about this. Please don't be too upset.


If the milonga is only three and a half hours long,
And you are giving a performance,
And most of the people are there to dance socially (or even if some of them aren't),
And even if your performance is quite exceptional (or especially if it is, to take a wholly imaginary example based on many experiences, totally phoned-in 'salon' stuffed full of silly-ass back-sacadas)
And no matter what your mates in the crowd do (buying your own hype is a bad bargain even for princes),

Here are some things you do:

You move briskly from dressing room to stage and back,
You refrain from excessive faffing between tracks,

And you sit down after a maximum of four.

Sitting down after three tracks or less might get you a reputation for modesty, professionalism and good manners.

Going on longer doesn't convince people you are stars. If you are, they'll be able to tell, by watching your dancing. Also, you sound ridiculous preaching about social dancing if you make it it abundantly clear that you don't give a monkey's about other people's.

I know it's a tough job, but sitting down is not the toughest part.


Here's the problem, as Carole explained it to me:  In Argentina they expect you to go on as long as you are allowed, and they signal you when to stop. They also basically assume that if you want to go on longer about something - anything - it means you are passionate and sincere about it. And if you are brief, then you aren't.


In Britain they won't tell you to stop; they expect you to know, accurately, when to stop, taking into account both your own popularity and other people's time for social dancing. They expect that as part of your professional skill. So, Carole tells me, travelling Flamenco shows and such-like always shorten their acts for the second performance in London, and some of the more intelligent ones work on imaginative curtain calls to replace planned encores and manage the process of getting off stage to everyone's satisfaction.

And - here is the really nasty bit - if you go on and on about something, the British think that you are insecure and don't really believe what you are saying.

"The lady protests too much, methinks" 
 - is one of Shakespeare's most famous and often-quoted lines, and it means precisely this. If you go on longer than is necessary to persuade the listener, you must be trying to persuade yourself.

Anyway. Three is safe and communicates modesty and a genuine interest in social dancing. Four may be demanded if you are genuinely popular, in which case it's polite not to waste time. Five? In a milonga three-and-a-half hours long with a class that overran by twenty minutes? May not have the intended effect.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Some reflections about software

Facebook has many, many annoying characteristics.

It also has one single feature, the "block" feature, that makes the entire thing usable - it's exactly equivalent to the Format Painter in Microsoft Word, without which Word would be almost impossible to use at all. Use 'block,' and you never have to see a single word uttered by the online equivalent of the Office Witterer. If only there were an offline version, a sort of selective noise-cancelling headphone.

But Facebook is also the fastest, most usable, most flexible and effective collaborative working system I've ever used in any business. It's genuinely useful in a way that no sharing system I've ever encountered commercially comes close to. It's got document-sharing and discussion that actually works, and I've used it for collaborative video editing and agreeing graphic designs, getting comments on drafts of things, as well as all sorts of on-the-fly organisation and coordination. It's even got search that works, quite well actually. Some sort of task-list feature might be handy, but it's not actually necessary when the basic 'post/comment/repost/comment' concept is so fast and easy.

It's also extremely useful for making a prat of yourself, or for making your life 100% interrupt-driven, if either of those is what your personal demons are up for. I think it takes some skill to get the best out of, and especially a little ruthlessness in deciding when not to use it. And I don't think I would have liked it to be around when I was 14. Now, though, it's just software that does something useful.

People talk about technology a lot, and very often they don't have any realistic concept of how other humans actually use it. It's worth asking the question sometimes.

Anyway I'm REALLY busy and this is the thing that floated to the top of my mind. Sorry.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Advice and feedback in 1513

Published five hundred years ago this year, while the early modern world was being born:

XXIII - How Flatterers Should Be Avoided

... there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.  Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. ... each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

... A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that anyone, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

... this is an axiom which never fails; that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice ...

... but if a prince who is not experienced should take counsel from more than one he will never get united counsels, nor will he know how to unite them. Each of the counsellors will think of his own interests ... Therefore it must be inferred that good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.
Nicolo Machiavelli - The Prince*
There are a few different, interesting, and perhaps not wholly compatible ideas in there. My interpretation for those of us who are not the princes of early-modern Italian city states, but who may still be attempting complex, ambitious or difficult matters:

Seek out information and advice you consider worth hearing. Pay a fair price for it, or reward it in other ways. Take unwelcome information calmly, but do not listen to people who don't know what they are talking about, or to bullshitters who speak only for effect. Do not commit yourself to an idea too soon; once committed, do not vacillate.

Accept that it will all very often be contradictory and difficult to reconcile. Accept that you may make the wrong choice of adviser, and the wrong choice of advice. These are real difficulties; take full responsibility for your enterprise; use reason and experience to overcome them, with time.

Never tolerate a liar.

* The above translation is not my own; it's from my Wordsworth Reference translation, which includes a translator's introduction but doesn't name the translator, who I would credit if I could. As the book was very cheap, I suspect the translation was out of copyright when I bought it in the 90's.

Monday 9 September 2013

Small blessings

Fried egg
Hummus (who invented hummus? Genius)
Chocolate (not bad either)
Turkish grocers

Especially in the middle of the night. There are downsides but I'm glad I don't live in suburbia a mile from the nearest pot of hummus.

Saturday 31 August 2013

Miscellaneous activities

I've just been digging up miscelleanous facts about Wanstead (a place swallowed up by East London over the last two centuries) for a project. I found a painting by Hogarth, a telescope by Huygens, some information about what you could buy for half a guinea in 1752, some archaeologists discussing rain, ants, and tesserae, and a learned paper about the material culture of an anti-link-road protest. It was quite interesting.

Dancing has added a lot to my life in all sorts of ways. I wouldn't have been doing this if I hadn't accepted a lift home, years ago, from a newish friend.

Monday 26 August 2013

Tomorrow's Milongas London on FB

Just a quick one especially for my overseas readers who might have missed it: there is a page on Facebook which constantly announces the milongas scheduled in London over the next week. It does not categorise or evaluate the milongas in any way except by location, which is helpfully given by Zone (see http://www.tfl.gov.uk for London transport zone maps and journey planners), so you can expect to find a wider range of events listed than I would ever deal with here.

The administrator actively checks with the organisers of her listings, so you can use the listings with some confidence, although of course such information is never entirely reliable because some organisers aren't reliable, and stuff happens. You can also use it as a cross-check if the organiser's website is incomprehensible or out-of-date.

This is a lot of work and it's a useful service, so give her some love.

It's called "Tomorrow's Milongas London" and is here: https://www.facebook.com/TomorrowsMilongasLondon

Friday 9 August 2013

A scarlet ibis

I am a quick, demanding, inattentive reader. When a piece of English prose leaves me sighing with delight, I sometimes like to type it out to get a closer look.

The year is rather vague, but about 1812. Stephen Maturin is an Irish physician, Nathaniel Martin an English clergyman. They are respectively Surgeon and Surgeon's Mate of the British frigate Surprise (Captain Aubrey), which has been damaged by tropical lightning and is putting in to Penedo, Brazil, for repairs. Speaking as we join them is Mr. Allen, an officer, dropping off the two of them, dedicated naturalists, on the beach at dawn.

... Shove off, Macbeth.' And when the boat was some way out on the smooth water he called back, 'Mind the alligators, gentlemen.'

They were standing on a firm white strand and already there was light enough to see that a little way up the slope there began a grove of trees: but surely too high, too massive to be trees. The light increased, and trees they were, palms of an almost unbelievable mass and height, their enormous fan-shaped leaves bursting in a vegetable explosion well over a hundred feet above their heads, and outlined sharp against the greying sky.

'Would they be Mauritia vinifera?' asked Martin in a whisper.

'Mauritia of some kind, sure; but what I cannot tell,' said Stephen.

They walked slowly, reverently into the grove: there was no undergrowth and spring tides or perhaps floods kept the ground quite clean, so that the magnificent trees rose sheer, each some ten yards from the next, a vast grey column.

Their feet made no sound as they paced on; but very soon it was darkness that they were walking into, for the dense fronds intertwined far overhead, and except at its fringes the grove was still filled with warm silent night, the pale trunks soaring up into obscurity. They turned right-handed with one accord and as they reached the outer edge again, facing the river and the strand, the sun heaved up from the eastern sea, sending an instant brilliance across the water to the other bank, no great way off. The reflected light and colour of the far bank fairly blazed upon them as they stood there in the shade of the remaining trees, a bank with a line of shining sand and then a great wall of the most intensely vivid green, an almost violent green, with palms of twenty or thirty different kinds soaring above it, all in the total silence of a dream. Martin clasped his hands as he gazed, uttering some private ejaculations; and Stephen, touching his elbow, nodded towards three trees some way up the river, three enormous cathedral-like domes that rose two hundred feet above the rest, one of them completely covered with deep red flowers.

They took a few more steps through the palms, reaching the white unshaded strand: to the left hand at the water's edge lay a twenty-foot caiman, contemplating the gentle stream, and to the right hand, full in the brilliant sun there stood a scarlet ibis.
Patrick O'Brian, The Far Side of the World.

I point especially to the rhythm of the long paragraph, and how it builds astonishment. This is the end of Chapter 4.

Monday 29 July 2013

Tips for European 'encuentros'

A looooong post with all the bits of advice that have helped other people. A bit of an orientation guide to help if you're considering it, and haven't done it before.

What are they?

About the name: the people who organise and attend the kind of event I'm describing, call it an encuentro. So I'm going to call it that here. Obviously, nobody owns a word which is just the Spanish for "meeting", so there will be occasions when people organise a totally different kind of event and call it the same thing. It's pretty much always clear from the website.

It's a different concept from a marathon or a true 'festival', with workshops and shows and whatnot. Those can scale up to 300 or 400 - but they aren't all-shapes-and-ages social events in the same way as an encuentro is, although that might be changing.

'Encuentros' are normally between 100 and 200 people, sometimes as few as 80 or as many as 250. The format is from four to six (or even seven) milongas in one location over a weekend or a long weekend. They hire the best DJs they can, and people come from all over the world, but mostly from all over Europe. It's modern, close-embrace, social tango, with mirada/cabeceo, and aiming to create a social floor (that is, a good connection and flow between couples dancing as well as between individuals) and attract a modest, no-showing-off sort of mindset that is there to meet and dance socially rather than to see or be seen. The milongas are 'traditional', but not 'formal', except in the sense that everyone dresses nicely for the evening ones.

The programme is usually something like:

Friday night milonga from 22:00 to 03:00
Saturday afternoon milonga from 14:00 to 18:00
Saturday night milonga from 22:00 to 04:00
Sunday milonga from 14:00 to 21:00ish
Maybe some kind of communal meal, not always, usually on Saturday or Sunday or both.

A few events might have milongas on Thursday or Monday or both, and you might get an extra afternoon one on the Friday.

They happen in all sorts of interesting places where you might quite reasonably spend a holiday. Dans Tes Bras linked to this map, and put up a nice general description of what these events are. Melina put up a listing for this year, of just the ones she could vouch for at the time.

The quality of organisation varies, and I base my own choice of which ones to apply to on the the cost and effort of getting there, the DJ lineup, and the organisers, in more or less that order, with some tradeoffs and of course some estimate of who else is going to be there. I'll travel further and accept more hassle for my favourite dancers and DJs, or for a location that really attracts me. The personality of the event also varies.

The distinctive general quality for me is that you do not find anyone preoccupied with selling, buying, seeing, being seen, name-dropping, fawning, hype, or similar embarrassments. Everyone is there to dance socially, as social dancers, for fun, with other people who are fun to dance with, and fun to share the floor with. No commerce. No classes. No shows.

There is likely be a wide range of ages - with a good supply of people between thirty and forty, many between forty and seventy, and some younger than 30, who are often beautiful dancers and having a whale of a time. This is part of what makes these events a lot of fun socially.

What's called a 'festivalito' is practically the same thing but includes a small scale opportunity to take workshops or private lessons focused on social dancing, and perhaps one brief demonstration - over time, these tend to drop the classes and convert themselves into 'encuentros'. A festivalito is a good choice for a first try, and the lessons offered tend to be very worthwhile and with very nice and professional people. By 'encuentro,' people mean the kind with no lessons at all.

Swimming pools are not unknown, but it's extremely unlikely you'll be expected to dance in one.

Dance style, and a quick check for Londoners

The dance style, in as far as there is one, is what the europeans call 'milonguero'. Londoners should be warned: this has NO relation to what people mean when they talk about 'milonguero' as going with a particular kind of music and 'salon' as going with another. That idea is inapplicable, and would be laughed at. In this context, it means you need actually good basics - balance, connection, embrace, axis, musicality.

Quick check: if you think the utterance "You just can't dance milonguero style to Di Sarli" sounds sane, you're using the word in a completely different sense. If you say it, people will think you're crazy and have crap technique.

You will find that people dance in ways that are very dissimilar to each other. It's extremely individual. This is a joy.


It's always mirada/cabeceo; if you go up to someone and ask verbally, this will be understood - with some astonishment - as an explicit announcement that you have no idea what you're doing. Dancing in an unexpected role doesn't cause any problems with this. I know people say it might in theory, but in real life it doesn't. Everyone can cope.

There are often a handful of men at these things who like to follow, and do that a lot, and some women who like to spend half or more of their time leading. If any of those are you, be aware that you are very welcome at these 'encuentros', and the layout and seating is rarely set up to make you feel otherwise. The only exception I am aware of has been Barcelona, but I believe they've abandoned the segregated seating this year. I agree with them dropping it, as I don't think it makes any sense - people at these things want to be able to dance with whoever they wish, and want other people to do that too, and nobody is bothered by anybody swapping roles. If you can do both well, you're a kid in a sweetshop. [Update: I'm informed that the new encuentro in Sweden this year had segregated seating. I personally would never apply to one that I knew for sure was going to do this, as I have tried it and think it kills the concept and the party. But you should consult only your own preference - after asking the question, as they don't always warn us. Update 2 (three years later): Now that I lead a lot, I am fairly indifferent about segregated seating. I either sit at one end and invite in both directions, or change sides from time to time. It depends on the layout of the room.]

It is not a Buenos Aires milonga and it is not an imitation of one, and nobody thinks that it is. There is an overlap, which sometimes includes a surprising number of people, but this is a distinctively European kind of party.

Getting in

Registration is normally four to six months in advance and is normally gender-balanced [edit: or, rather, role-balanced; how they ask the question varies]. Payment will be due on assignment of your place, and will confirm it. If the concept appeals to you, then I'd suggest contacting some organisers and asking if you can please be on the mailing list to be notified of the booking date for next year.

Facebook membership is useful organisationally, as there is usually an event or group where they'll publish practical information. Then do what my roommate in Paris did - book as early as possible as each of them opens, see what you get into, then book flights and accommodation as soon as you can for the cheapest deal. Free cancellation at services like booking.com often means you can reserve accommodation before you are certain of your place, if necessary. Most encuentros will suggest accommodation on the website, and there may be a discount arranged with local businesses.

There are new ones all the time. If people like the look of it and trust the organisers, they may receive at least twice as many applications as there are places, perhaps on the first day, perhaps in the first hour. Single leaders can often afford to wait a little longer, but not in all cases. How they manage the bookings varies wildly. If they don't know you, they may want to ask around to see if anyone can vouch for your competence and behaviour as a social dancer, but they do want to add new people, as it makes it more fun, so go for it. Getting into new ones is likely to be easier than getting into established ones. It's also riskier, as they may not get it right first time and you have no information from people who've been before.

Considerations about whether to try it

It's social dancing, so it matters a lot how nice you feel to dance with and how musical you are, as people will just pick you on their best estimate of that, they don't give a damn who you are otherwise.

They also won't feel obliged to accept anything they don't like the look of. So you need a reasonable skill level (within limitations is fine), but focused on a good embrace and connection with your partner, the music, and other couples on the floor. Of course it's a good idea to eliminate visually obvious problems, but you don't have to have perfect footwork or great technique or be tanned and thin. There will, of course, be people there who do have perfect footwork. In fact, there will be some dancers you'll feel very privileged to see and who are wonderful in various ways. But it's not so much what it's all about.

You can get away with just not leading any turns, especially if you're very musical and have a nice embrace, but you can't fudge by opening the embrace whenever you turn or cross to cover your poor posture, wobbly axis, and dislike of twisting in the middle. Nobody has an incentive to fall for it. If you are a woman, you'll need to be able to maintain a full-on connection as well as having your own axis and balance all the time.

They usually balance men and women, which can come as a severe shock to some people unused to level competition. For both men and women, however - imagine you were top of your school and the popular kid all the way up, and then you went to university and found that you were in the bottom third and nobody thought you were specially interesting. If your reaction to this is to be a bit miffed, you'll need to overcome that. If your reaction is to feel that a weight has been lifted from your shoulders, to breathe, to learn, and to raise your game, you'll have a ball, as I did the first time I went to Les Cigales.

The money adds up, but deals on flights and accommodation are sometimes extremely good, and entry fees are low, usually around £60 for the whole weekend. If you live near a medium-to-big European airport, you could do four to six of these for the same money as three weeks in Buenos Aires, and you'd use less holiday and make friends you can actually see sometimes.

In my opinion the only advantage to going as a couple is that you'll usually get priority booking. It saves costs to have a roommate, but I don't think it matters otherwise. Being alone means you don't have to worry about anyone, and simplifies the process of making new friends, which is a good thing for your first attempt. I'm used to being alone, though. Do what feels right for you. Sometimes it works to have a wingman.

Practical tips

As I said in a previous post, my main problem is arranging to be hungry and awake and have food in front of me all at the same time, so I can eat enough calories to dance as much as I want to. If possible, I try to sleep for four hours, get up for the hotel breakfast, eat it, and go back to bed for another four hours, then have some lunch and return to the party. Dinner may or may not happen, but I carry nuts and chocolate. Think about what works for your body. I find that sleeping for six hours, waking up hungry and having a snooze later just makes me dozy, but it might work for you.

I usually travel out on the day of the first milonga, and home on the morning after the last one. This is all about how far you have to go and how long it takes, but I recommend being relaxed and not in a hurry for the end of the last event. Goodbyes can take a lot of time. If I can, I take a recovery day afterwards. I'm more tired than I think I am.

I always do hand luggage only. I don't trust airlines with my stuff for such a short trip. Here's a post about packing light. I do notice that the fashion for many pairs of very elaborate shoes is receding, and people usually bring just two pairs in neutral or solid colours that they really, really like. I sometimes take only one pair, but two is safer. It can be hot, so take spare shirts. A fold-up shopping bag makes a good milonga bag.

Both men and women should avoid varying their "look" too much over the weekend. People who don't know you will get confused and forget who you are and whether they wanted to dance with you or not. The more people there are, the more of a problem this is. Keep the general appearance of your hair the same, stick to the same general look in your outfit, or at the very least wear a constant, distinctive, visible hairpiece or piece of jewellery that people can remember. If you're going to wear a suit, stick to it.

If you can't make up your mind about your outfit just before the milonga, and it's freaking you out, take the other one with you in the milonga bag. You can always change if you feel wrong.

Miscellaneous tips

If you don't know anyone, or only one or two people, just concentrate on enjoying the adventure and getting your first dance, and then one dance at a time. Avoid worrying or comparing yourself to others. Especially avoid trying to analyse and seek any logic in who dances with whom: so many things affect it, including random events, that you can never have enough information, and you'll only end up convincing yourself of things that aren't true.

I still avoid trying too hard to get any dance with anyone in particular, as I find it just confuses me and makes me miss opportunities. I chat with other women, I take and share suggestions and experiences, and I look around to see who might be interested. When I'm not dancing a tanda, I sometimes get up and wander about to keep my energy up. If you start feeling tragic, you may be a bit low on blood sugar; have a drink, eat some Emergency Chocolate, offer a piece to someone else, and start a conversation about the venue, the floor, the music, the organisation, the food, the dancing, the weather, the town, the difficulty of it all, etc. Ask questions.

Especially in Italy and France, you may find that your chances of getting a dance with a man go up dramatically if you precede your mirada with a friendly conversation with his wife on some such neutral subject, and then allow time for communication. I presume a similar method would work the other way, but I don't know.

On your first few attempts, be prepared for the first milonga to seem like hard work. It's full of people who have just got off planes and are cramped, overexcited, overtired, stressed, flustered, and desperate to fall into the arms of 20 wonderful people they haven't seen for six months. And organisers often make the error of putting their weakest DJ here, because not everyone has arrived yet, when it really needs a strong one to break the ice.

It's a good thing if you can become a safe choice for someone to get started with, but really you may as well just jump in and take whatever chances are on offer - usually a fairly safe bet, since the base level is high, unless something has gone quite wrong with the organisation. Nowadays, when I know people and they know me, I find instead that the first milonga goes well for me and it's Saturday night that feels like hard work. At some events, Saturday night will be in a different venue, and be bigger, with extra people from the local area. My favourites are the afternoons, especially the last one. Some people prefer the evenings because they like the buzz and excitement. It depends on your personality.

Assuming the DJing is all pretty good, it usually takes me until the middle of Saturday afternoon to really get into it properly, transforming my dance through tiredness. At that point, I feel like I am doing less and hearing more, I connect much more deeply, and I am sure I feel more musical to dance with. I'd like it to happen quicker, and I'm thinking about how to cultivate that.

It's a very nice place to be, and it can last a couple of weeks, or even longer, in good conditions.

Worst case

The worst-case scenario is that the DJing is weak, it's too dark for cabeceo, the floor is bad, the organisation is weak, and they've booked too many people, too few of whom dance well enough (or get the event concept well enough) so that everyone can afford to take risks. If good leaders have several bad experiences in a row, they'll shut down, they'll stop dancing with people they don't know, and the whole thing falls apart. It's absolutely crucial that people can take risks with confidence. Failures do happen.

Best case

Your feet hurting up to the knees, your open-side arm almost unable to hold itself up, your heart full of  splendid balloons, delightful new friends, and a long weekend of tango bliss.

Hedgehog's DJ Shortlist

This is purely personal and by no means exhaustive, but if I see any of the following names in the DJ lineup, I am more likely to apply: Lampis - Bernhard Gehberger - Theo 'El Greco' Chatzipetros - Céline Devèze - Enrico Malinverni. You should compile your own list over time.

Sample Video

[Update Note: The first few seconds of this video make it look like there was segregated seating. There wasn't, they just gave women priority on the front two rows all the way around to make it easier with the big floor. The men are actually sitting in the row behind, at the same tables. You can see better later in the video. There virtually never is segregated seating. I just didn't want to repeat the one in the previous post, which doesn't have this problem.]
There you go. They're all different. They're not for everyone. They might be for you. You'll probably know. Hope that helps.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Updates to the favourites list

I've added a few new ones to the top of the favourite posts list on the right, and re-ordered some of the others.

The most popular post ever, for some reason unknown to me, is the one about the Chinese advertisement on the London bus in front of the umbrella shop in New Oxford Street. I still don't know if anyone at all even understood the title of that post - the pun, or even the allusion. The DJ questionnaire, the Sock Dragon, and the one about shoe brands and heel heights are also popular. The order is a mixture of popularity, and what is interesting or important to me personally.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Good organisation in Paris

250 people is usually too much for an encuentro. Normally, I find that anything above 180 makes getting dances rather hard, and the whole experience a bit overwhelming and stressful, because a milonga doesn't really scale up that well. It's a problem, because these are really fun events and there are lots of people who want to go, so if you limit it to the 100-200 sweet spot, you always have the problem of upsetting someone. Even with 250 places, Dans Tes Bras still got 400 applications. And if you're going to do it in a big (and therefore accessible) city, it has to be big or it's not going to be viable in relation to the high costs.

But the organisers in Paris put a lot of thought into how to manage the numbers, and came up with pretty good solutions. They didn't just pander to people's preferences, they really thought about what would work and did the best they could. That meant:

  1. A really fun venue with pleasant staff
  2. A decent, if imperfect, temporary dancefloor
  3. Plenty of seats - more seats than people - this I think is crucial
  4. Lots of entrances to the dancefloor, so that it filled and cleared very fast
  5. Lots of space to move behind the floor-side seating and to chill outside the hall - this I also think makes a big difference
  6. Enough light (after some experimentation - this was a first try)
  7. Food and drink available (not included, and free water only from the tap, but that's big-city venues, it was fine to bring and refill your own bottle)
  8. An experimental seating plan by which women were given priority on the two front rows of seats, basically because the floor was really too big for cabeceo right across it, so you had to do angles, and it was always going to be a compromise. Most women and those intending to follow (like me) picked a spot and largely stuck to it. The men, and those intending to lead, moved more, but not always. Men and women were still sitting together and at the same tables (set at right angles to the seating). Overall it worked, and those who regularly do both roles often changed what they did according to what they wanted. The best place to sit was actually row 2, because the angles were better.
  9. A working arrangement for taxis back to hotels.
So it is doable. It can work. I'm encouraged by that, as it means there can be more nice events that are viable, for more people to enjoy. The good quality of DJing contributed a lot, especially on Sunday, and I know from other experience that a really epic DJ set can make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, organisationally speaking.

But there aren't many DJs like that, and there's no need to make it difficult.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Warm and Fuzzy in Paris

A nice little video from the event I was at this weekend. (I can't see myself in this one - if I'm in it, then I'm too small to pick out, although I can see a few friends - I may well have been outside cooling down, it was very hot). Hoping the embed will work - I haven't tried to embed a Facebook video before, but since it has the 'public' setting you should be able to see it.

This type of event consists of four to six longish milongas, and usually one or more communal dinners, over three, or occasionally four, days, normally Friday to Saturday. You tend to end up with about 24 hours in total of dancing and 12 hours of sleep, and the main challenge for me is arranging to be awake, and hungry, and with food in front of me, sufficiently often over the weekend. The good food at the 'asado' on Sunday was a bonus. Concepts and complications, and a listing, from Melina, here.

I danced with people I didn't know. I danced with old men and young men, I danced with women, and men danced together as well with nobody batting an eyelid, although I'm not saying the odd fan wasn't waved. I danced and danced and danced, in very hot weather, until my prickles were all soft and fuzzy and I could only smile and not really talk much. That's me in the picture.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Quiet - sorry!

I'm not sure if I have nothing much to say, or too much to say so that it seems like too much work.

Some of the things I'd like to write about are:

- A beginners' guide to getting the best out of teachers and classes.
- A beginners' guide to getting the best out of being a beginner, which is in some ways an unrepeatable opportunity
- A possible strategy for learning to dance tango, given the kind of opportunities that exist in the big city
- Possible ways of deciding whether you want to do that
- Things you can learn from taking dance classes that are not intentionally in the class
- A video reference of beautiful tango.

- I should really do a few more reviews. A couple of milongas have closed down, and several new ones have sprung up. To do that I need to go to the places, and that means changing my schedule and getting out of my comfort zone - and I also like to let each place go for a while and find its feet, and also go there more than once, if practical, before writing it up. I kind of feel that someone less experienced than me could do a better job of this, these days, since when I go now I nearly always know people and I have a very specific idea of what I like, and usually don't dance if I don't like what I see - which isn't so useful to strangers.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Collective Motion, Heavy Metal, and exercises for the interested reader

In this video, Professor Moriarty summarises a paper in Physical Review Letters, entitled  "Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts". I suggest watching to the end.

The paper in short form: http://arxiv.org/abs/1302.1886 - and more from the researchers: http://cohengroup.ccmr.cornell.edu/research.php?project=10017

Abstract: Human collective behavior can vary from calm to panicked depending on social context. Using videos publicly available online, we study the highly energized collective motion of attendees at heavy metal concerts. We find these extreme social gatherings generate similarly extreme behaviors: a disordered gaslike state called a mosh pit and an ordered vortexlike state called a circle pit. Both phenomena are reproduced in flocking simulations demonstrating that human collective behavior is consistent with the predictions of simplified models.

Those of you who can enjoy the mathematics may also enjoy the source code for the simulations, available at github and linked to in the short form article, and anybody can play with the simulation, here.

On reading the reasearchers' summary and looking at the short form paper, I'm not yet convinced that this research really predicts or explains anything, but I'd like to know if it could.

In my view, moshing is a kind of social dance. Obviously you could throw yourself around to heavy metal music all alone, but the true experience, I would have thought, is the one where you get to bounce off other people in the presence of a band.

I have a lot of questions about lots of social dance phenomena that might be answered by research of this kind. People argue about them endlessly, with no conclusions, and that makes me think they must be simpler than they appear to be.

For example:

How simple can a simulation of a (social, progressive, partner) dance be and generate a plausible simulation of a dance floor? How about an orderly line of dance in a specific direction? What variations can you introduce and still have it work? What variations can you introduce and have it fall apart?
I say that lighting - or rather, its effect on the ability of dancers to accurately estimate the distance and velocity of other dancers - matters. Can we support or falsify that with evidence?
I also say that layout matters. Hard or soft edges to the dancefloor matter. Irregular corners matter. A dancefloor that is too big in relation to certain characteristics of the dancers, will always be disorderly. Can we model, support, or falsify any of this?

I say that flocking behaviour matters a lot: and that, if everyone does it just enough, you still get order, but if some people do it not at all, others have to do it more to create order. I say that this interacts with the size of the floor compared to the number of dancers. Can that be shown?

What rules or conditions do you actually need, and what rules are unnecessary? That seems to me like it should be an answerable question.

It would also be very straightforward to Dance Your PhD afterwards.

Friday 7 June 2013

Dancing tango in Taksim Square, Turkey

Just a really quick one: Demare in Gezi Park, Taksim Square. Posted yesterday on Youtube.

They seem to have turned out a decent number of dancers. Go, Turks! Let's get it some views. Were you there?

Monday 27 May 2013

The Caterpillar Club

My father was born in 1945. This tiny thing represents the lives of myself and my sister and all of my aunts, uncles and cousins on that side.

Silkworm brooch with ruby eyes

My grandfather was a professional airman before, during, and after the Second World War. These brooches were presented by parachute manufacturers. If your life was saved by a parachute, you could write to them and they would send you one of these, with a letter welcoming you to the "Caterpillar Club". It's a minuscule gold silkworm, the caterpillar of a silk moth, with ruby eyes.

The ones I can find online that look like this one were issued by Irving Air Chute of Great Britain, Ltd., but various designs seem to have been used. To my taste, this is the nicest. We no longer have my grandfather's membership certificate or the presentation box, but the brooch has stayed in my Dad's possession, in a little cellophane wrapper inside my grandfather's portable writing box, along with leftover invitations to my parents' wedding reception and other odds and ends that nobody knows what to do with. It's possible that this brooch is a replacement - family legend is that he bailed out more than once, and the first one was lost, but I have no evidence.

I knew him, briefly, the only one of my grandparents I ever met. 

It always seemed a little wrong to me that a thing with so much meaning should be totally hidden away. But no one can reasonably wear it, and such a tiny object is tricky to display.

So I got a box frame from Atlantis Art Supplies, a bit of mount board, a bit of velvety black wool cloth from my stash, and some soft glossy mercerised cotton, and I've crocheted it a little picture to be in. Parachutes at that time were dome-shaped rather than rectangular as they are these days.

Display picture for the Caterpillar Club brooch
It has a curious clasp, a sort of two-part spring thing I have never seen before. I had to borrow my mother's reading glasses to attach it to the picture.

Ready to hang

Can you see what it is yet?

Probably not - but it's representational rather than functional, in this case. And it will be on a black background, just not my knee. This is actually a soft but glossy mercerised cotton.

Work in progress
This was Saturday, and it's finished now ... I'll post that later, as it will take a while to write.

Monday 20 May 2013

Death to typecasting

In the last few weeks I've had some fantastic Pugliese tandas with people who I don't usually think of as dancing Pugliese.

Different people get on better with different music. You don't really want to dance something with someone who doesn't really relate to it or doesn't have confidence with it. But you can't assume that because someone is a lot of fun with one thing, they won't be just as much at something else completely different.

It changes, too. I danced Canaro, twice, with a lyrical 'salonster' who never normally dances it. The first time was odd, experimental, it felt like he was pretending to be someone else, I wondered who. It didn't quite make sense, but I wanted to try it again. The second time he abandoned his prejudices, and danced it his own way; it still felt exploratory, but interesting and original, and totally individual, and it made perfect sense.

It makes me happy if someone is willing to experiment with me.

If you are very responsive as a follower, you can get typecast into fast rhythmic music and people can just not think of looking at you for the slow stuff where you can really engage emotionally, even though you can wait just as well. Or the opposite can happen.

It's good to know which way to look. But I try not to typecast too much.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Space Oddity on the ISS

Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), the Canadian Astronaut, ends his mission on the International Space Station with an adaptation of Bowie's Space Oddity:

Music video. Shot in space. At the time of writing it's still got the "301+" view count, and Chris Hadfield is, I think, in a Soyuz on his way home ...[Edit: I'm wrong - departure is scheduled 24 hours later]

He says:

Wednesday 24 April 2013

How to see all knitting posts

I'm getting knitting referrals - I haven't posted any knitting for a really long time, but in case you don't see the 'tags' thing, here is a link that should give you all the posts about knitting.


When you get down to the bottom, you can click "Older Posts" at the very bottom left and you will find two more pages of posts.

Monday 22 April 2013

What's so hot about Ruby?

As I said in 'Praise of other women', it can often be a bit of a mystery to the women in tango what we might aim to achieve, beyond just being able to follow the kind of thing it's possible to do in the open-level class before a milonga. Why do people want to dance with one woman rather than another? We often just don't know; and we make stuff up, often false and unhelpful.

I think that once you have some information about what people appreciate in good dancers, you can pretty much work out for yourself how to achieve it. When trial and error doesn't work, it's easy enough to find someone to ask. But if you don't have any idea what you're looking for, you're stuck, and lessons are often wasted.

Here, then, are some sticky notes of miscellaneous praise for various tango women, all of which came from people whose leading I respect. Some of them are almost the same as each other - but describing different women. I feel that's worth knowing. I've paraphrased some slightly - they were all in conversation over several years and not written down.

When stuck, you could pick one that you liked the sound of, and find out how to be it. Maybe we could have some more, different ones in the comments? Because I could only get these from people I know.

A hugging-and-then-flapping-hands gesture to signify: "her embrace feels like angel wings and my heart is happy".

 "It's like dancing with a little amplifier."

"She feels incredibly steady, like it would be impossible to push her over, but she's really easy to move."

"She was so on the beat, I realised I could think of it like the music was coming from her."

"She embraces you, and you don't even want to move."

"It's crazy how she manages everything!"

"I know I can trust her on a difficult floor, if I lead her to step straight into me, she'll always do it".

"She has an extremely comfortable embrace."

"Like a rollerball. Or a hovercraft."

"So smooooth."

"At the end, tic, tac, perfect!"

"Tres bonne connection."

"So easy".

"She gives off this snuggly vibe like she really wants to be exactly here."

"She has hungry feet".

"It's nice to dance slow music with someone who can do it justice."

"She's nice, I enjoyed it, she has quick feet."

"When we walk, she seems to have endless legs."

"Totally musical, and absolutely no ornaments whatsoever."

"She has one of the most wonderful embraces, I'm just, like, I'm happy now, we don't need to go anywhere".

"I realised I could weight-change her one toe at a time."

"You should have danced with her today, she's like a V8, brrrroommm!"

"Incredibly soft".

"Centred and playful, impeccable balance and axis."

"Tecnica, and feeling".

[post-publication additions below]

"Al compás!"

"Every time I dance with you, always new, nice embrace, nice musicality, always surprises ... [to friend] She's explosive!"