Saturday 26 December 2015

Salad Dressing

If you just put oil and vinegar in a jar, and you don't shake it, you do not get salad dressing.

You have to put energy in.

Supermarkets think very, very carefully about what things they put on the shelves that are under your hand while you queue for the checkout. Milongas should think just as carefully about what the room looks like when you enter it; about who is coming, and who is already there; about how the people in it see themselves, see each other, and try to make themselves comfortable. Humans are social, extremely sensitive to all kinds of complex signals, and you cannot expect them to put them aside, especially as most of them are processed unconsciously.

The information they need to form a community - however briefly - can be exchanged with time, or it can be provided, within certain limits, by leadership and proper shaking of the jar.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Just watch the whole thing (Falcon 9)

Stayed awake to watch it, as I knew it was coming and couldn't have gone to sleep.

Summary: the Falcon 9 first stage rocket, which is 70m tall, delivers the second stage to 80km altitude (and, much more importantly for the purposes of spaceflight, a speed of approximately 6,000 kph). The first stage then detacheds from the second, relights 3 of its 9 engines, flips over, slows itself down from 6,000kph in a controlled manner, extends four enormous legs, and lands with a thump  upright on its legs on a concrete square a few thousand metres from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. And then it just stands there while everyone finishes screaming.

The 2nd stage continues under its own power to orbital speed of about 26,000kph, delivers 11 relatively mundane truck-tracking satellites to their planned positions, then gracefully deorbits itself to burn up in the atmosphere (vaporisation of space junk comes for free with the atmosphere if you can slow it down just enough from 26,000 kph).

As famously explained by xkcd, space is not "up". Space is fast sideways. Go straight up to the altitude of the ISS and you'll just come straight down again. The astronauts in the ISS float not because they have escaped gravity, but because they are in freefall. The point is that they are going so fast sideways that every time they fall towards the earth, they miss. That's what orbit means; it means missing, in the same way that every half-year the earth falls towards the sun, misses, turns round, and falls again, still downwards, but in the other direction. Nice thought for a solstice.

Review: Caminar Abrazados - Instructional Book and DVD

Disclosure: Melina is a good friend. On the other hand, I'd bought my own copy before she offered to send me one.

This is a new thing; a properly thought out instructional work for social dancing of Argentine Tango, which aims to give a comprehensive basic course. As far as I know, there isn't any other work that attempts the same thing with anywhere near the same ambition. I was looking forward to this book with some interest, since Melina and Detlef's regular students are reliably easy and fun to dance with, sometimes exceptionally musical, and always individual.

I like the book, and I like the DVD. It's suitable for all levels. Beginners will find an excellent guide to basic technique, musicality, and social dancing. Non-beginners will find the same, and a structured troubleshooting manual. Professionals will find well-tested effective teaching ideas.

For beginners: I suggest you start with the DVD and watch the whole thing. A few unfamiliar words will appear without being introduced, but it doesn't matter. You're likely to have questions: at that point, refer to the book, which will answer them in lots of detail.

Non-beginners: either do the same, or you might like to start by looking up in the book whatever interests you most. Then watch the first hour of the DVD, then go back to the beginning and work through the whole thing using them together.

The fundamental usefulness of this work is that it embodies a practical, progressive, thought-out plan  for learning to dance well. You start with posture, embrace, and communication. You go on to walking, changes of lane, then changes of system, and pivots, in that order, all with detailed instructions and exercises to make sure you have control of what you are doing, and freedom to improvise. The technique guide in chapters 1-14 is logically arranged and progressive, so that spending time on the earlier parts will be rewarded later and you can tell where to go back to if you get stuck.

At this point I would suggest flipping forward to chapter 20, which is devoted to the broader, less technical aspects of following and the follower's full role in the dance. I think many beginners would find it encouraging as well as helpful and important, and I would have put it at the end of the technique section instead of near the end of the book.

Next comes an introduction to the structure and characteristics of tango music, with chapters on rhythmic diversity, phrasing, and musical exercises to make your dance - in either role - more interesting.

The chapters of tips and experiences for social dancing and community-building would be as useful and time-saving for teachers and organisers as for students of the dance. Finally, there are tips on practicing and making the best use of teachers. And there's a very handy troubleshooting checklist hidden on page 156.

The diagrams and photos are clearly printed and of high quality, and looking closely at the drawings sometimes reveals an idea not spelled out in the text. The presentantion in general is not super-slick looking, but it does the job.

It is comprehensive, in the sense that if you can manage the techniques and have a reasonable grasp of the rest of it, you are well equipped for social dancing anywhere you want to go. For certain situations you'll need some extra techniques, but, to be honest, I rarely actually use anything that isn't either in here, or just a more complex application of the same ideas that requires more practice and physical skill. The only thing I use somewhat regularly that isn't covered is an open or fluid social embrace, which many people never use at all. Depending on where you are, this may or may not be a problem.

It stops before explicitly discussing turns. But it does cover all the techniques you need to do various kinds of turns, and it's very reasonable to assume that you'll be taking classes as well as using the book, especially if you are a beginner. In that case you'll discover how to apply the techniques to turns, and if you're not a beginner it will be obvious anyway.

It's very, very difficult to explain dance movements clearly in words, and it is all the harder in a dance where there are no real rules and very few conventions. Overall, Melina and Detlef do an outstandingly good job of it.

I recommend reading slowly. The English is perfectly fluent and clear, with excellent pronunciation on the DVD, but not native. Errors of word choice are minor; 'harmonic' instead of 'harmonious', Latin plurals for parts of the body, surprising mid-sentence changes of register, and a few invented-but-obvious or correct-but-obsolete words. None of this matters in speech, and non-native readers of English will probably not even notice them in writing. The only one that I think really needs fixing is the brain-bending "down-over-up", which sounds like some sort of quantum tunnelling. They mean down, sideways, and up. Not a problem on the DVD, where you can clearly see what is happening, so if you watch the DVD first, it won't puzzle you. There's an errata page to clear this up, along with couple of errors in diagrams and on the DVD.

The writing is clear, but not always concise. They give detailed reasons for every single statement of advice. This is a good thing, but mixing instruction and explanation in the same paragraph makes the instructions seem longer than they really are. If you simply note what you are being told to do and then do it, you will find that the instructions are easy to follow, practical, and reliable, and will give you a good, natural basic technique that minimises stress on the body and works well in a very wide range of situations. This is why their regular students dance very individually while being reliably easy to lead and follow. 

It also means that much more detail is provided than most people will need. Extra detail sections are provided for those who like them. You will know if that is you or not.

The great thing about having a book is that you can use the material in the way you learn best. As an adult who has taken classes, you probably know what format works for you. My natural approach to each chapter is to read the how-to, read the exercises, glance at the introduction to check how it all fits in, and finally look at the detail section to see if there's anything there that I like. Then I go back to the exercises and note in my own words what I am being asked to do, which can usually be very brief, and try whatever it is in my weekly practice session. So far, I've always had satisfying results.

I found the explanation of how to lead pivots exceptionally helpful - just having it clearer in my head produced an immediate improvement in clarity, in confidence, and in the range of movements I could improvise successfully. The explanation of how, physically, to pivot as follower or leader without hurting yourself or throwing yourself off balance is outstanding. This is an important topic, as it's very easy to get injured when trying to practice on your own. I also think my leading will benefit a lot from the exercises on musicality.

The DVD picture is not high definition, but it's well lit and well filmed. You can see a small excerpt on Melina's recent blog post about posture. The sound of the recorded voices is a little echoey at times; not enough to be a serious problem, but it is a bit annoying and detracts from the impression of quality given by the rather beautiful studio. There are quite a few sight gags in the DVD, in a style that will be very familiar to Melina and Detlef's regular students, but I don't think there are any Easter eggs. Tell me if you find one.

Overall, I think the book and DVD together are extremely valuable as a structured guide to fundamental techniques, and as a reference and troubleshooting manual for study and practice alone, with a partner, or in a group.  

I would add, for those who take a lot of classes and notice these things, that chapters 1 to maybe 5 or 6 of the book, and the corresponding DVD material, cover (in a lot more detail and with marginally different emphasis) the same material as Carlitos and Noelia do in their first one or two walking-and-embrace workshops of a basic set. It's explained and visualised differently, but as someone who's done both I can tell you that if you paid attention in either, in my opinion you'd end up doing the same physical thing. That's convergent evolution for you. By all means do both, if you like; they certainly won't conflict.

I am also about 60% sure that one of the stranger moments in the DVD is really an excerpt of a cutting-edge South-East-European Ex-Communist-Surrealist satirical art project. But only about 60%. They might be completely serious.

Available directly from or via Amazon (but with low 'long-tail' stock, so you're unlikely to get it any quicker, and the authors get less out of it, but it's up to you).

Monday 21 December 2015

On sports car metaphors

Trud on a metaphor often used thoughtlessly:

The video (which up till now has been shared 500+ times) is meant for fun, yet it reminded me that it still exists, this idea that “a good follower is like a sports car”. Ok, I can see why “sports car” could sound like a compliment. I mean - quality and exclusivity and generally being the object of desire for most guys? C’mon, you’d be stupid not to want to be viewed like this. There’s just one problem with the metaphor: a car does not have a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have a brain. And for following, you need a brain.
I agree and disagree, for different reasons.

I completely concede that most women are likely to understand this metaphor as referring to an inanimate object that looks pretty, serves someone's vanity or pleasure, and has no other meaning. Because the world of sports cars - as often the case with STEM fields in general - is likely to be seen as unwelcoming to them, they will not have in mind any of what the car really represents.

But, for reasons particular to me, my default interpretation of 'sports car' is not, and never has been, a scaled-up designer handbag driven by a prat in shades. These do exist, of course, and they may well be what people have in mind when the metaphor is used. But I don't have to interpret any metaphor the way the speaker has in mind. Instead, I interpret it as a car designed for sport, that is, to win races.

Secondly, a racing car is much more than an inanimate object. It did not grow as it is, like a plant or an animal, or erode like a mountain. It is a made thing, made by people. Nor is it made to serve the driver; it is made to serve their mutual purpose of unreasonable speed. The two are made and chosen, respectively, for that alone.

If you think about what and who is really represented by that physical object, you will see something between a few hundred and several thousand people. The numerous highly skilled workers who made all the pieces, put them together and kept them in perfect working order; the enormous logistical effort; the trackside operation from the team principal, to the race engineer, to the fifteenth mechanic; and significant numbers of people with centuries' collective knowledge and experience of complex technology and critical engineering, materials science, physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, electronics, computer science, and so on. I once briefly dated a guy who wrote scientific papers at a famous university about how the tyres worked. That's the kind of brain-power you need to put a racecar on the road, even a bad one. Driving is a skilled job, but it takes a lot more than that level of skill, dedication, or talent, to make a racecar.

I do not argue for one moment that anyone who uses this metaphor actually means it this way. I do not recommend using this metaphor. It's more likely to be understood as crushing and alienating, than not.

However, don't tell me that a racing car doesn't "have" a brain. While trivially true, it is also total nonsense. It has hundreds, and most of them are probably pretty good ones. And if someone uses this metaphor to you, I invite you to understand it my way.