Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ohio once more

Let's impeach the president. Shock and Awe. Lookin' for a Leader.

Neil Young has come out with Living With War, a scathing new album. Listen online here.

Ek kanya

Lazy Sunday afternoon. Classy Shanghainese lunch, mellow. I am sitting outside a coffee shop in a mall, tethered to the pod, people-watching. There’s an escalator that lands a few meters to my right, depositing assorted groups of people in irregular waves. My thoughts come and go with them, sometimes noticed, rarely observed.

A pretty Hispanic lady, willowy summery lightweight collapsible stroller appears on the escalator. Unusual – everyone else is Chinese. In front of her I see a little girl, maybe two years old. Pink dress, bright, shiny eyes. I see her. She sees me. Eyes meet. A huge smile flashes across her face. She waves to me. I smile and wave back. Kids of two regard me favorably – they identify with me for a few glorious months before outgrowing me and moving on. This one is right in the target segment; I know the game well.

The escalator reaches level ground. The kid is still waving. She runs towards me. Through the muffle of the JGB, I hear her call, “Daddy!

Now that’s a new one.

The mother arrives, half a breathless second behind. Thick Spanish accent, beautiful, I was right about Hispanic. “I’m sorry, our father is Indian. He looks just like you. Very similar. Very similar.” [Lucky dog, my first thought – the child, not the wife!] She smiles, clearly very embarrassed. “Daddy!” the poppet says. Bright smiling eyes – her daddy’s playing a trick on her. I smile, what else can I do? To reach out to her, as I normally would have, would have been disaster. Her mother leans down and tries to explain, “This is not Daddy. He looks similar.” “Si-mi-lar,” the kid repeats, “Similar.” “Yes, similar,” we all say, off chorus. “Similar.”

The mother holds the kid’s hand and starts heading away. I wave goodbye. They both wave back. “Not Daddy,” I hear her say. The kid takes a few doubtful steps then turns back towards me, searching. There is a question in her eyes. She smiles again, as soon as she sees me looking at her. A stab of beauty illuminates her face. “Daddy!”

“Not Daddy.” “Similar.” “Similar.” They disappear behind a pillar. I wait for them to come out on the other side. They don’t. Mummy’s handling the crisis. I wrench my eyes away – let the poor lady make her escape. I bet this doesn’t happen to her every day either.

I turn back to my coffee and the pod. This is the first time in my life that a random babe has thrown herself at me. It’s also my first time at being called Daddy. I wish I’d asked the kid’s name. I’ve joined the ranks of the daddies. What a lovely smile she had. I’m growing old, aren’t I? The decaf was too sweet. The JGB played on.

It was you, not me that left
And went away with somebody else

Tore up over you and I just can't find my way

Tore up, yeah, yeah, yeah, tore up

Tore up over you and I just can't find my way

Friday, April 28, 2006

Theory Development is a Jazz Solo

That's the name of a real paper. This post is the first in a sequence of ruminations about the research process, inspired by this post by Ventilator Blues. I decided to start here because (a) I told VB that I would, and (b) it's such a cool title.

The full title of the original paper is "Theory Development is a Jazz Solo: Bird Lives!". It may be located in the Proceedings of the Winter Educators' Conference of the American Marketing Association, 1984. The author is Morris B. Holbrook. Holbrook is probably the smartest person I have ever met (although I realise that having said that, it's now impossible for me to email him this link). He also has a penchant for wonderful titles (can you say, "On Eschatology, Onanist Scatology, or Honest Catalogy? Cats Swinging, Scat Singing and Cat Slinging as Riffs, Rifts and Writs in A Catalytic Catechism for the Cataclysm"?). And he has a knack for looking at things very differently, in ways that can only make sense in retrospect.

This particular paper draws a parallel between the creative processes involved in the seemingly disparate endeavors of developing academic theory (specific to consumer research), and playing a jazz solo. In order to do this, Holbrook falls back on the Socratic model:

... in essence, both processes involve a dialectic that also underlies the occurrence of profound aesthetic experience. In this dialectical process, a thesis gives way to an antithesis; ultimately the thesis and antithesis combine to form a synthesis; subsequently, the synthesis serves as a new thesis on which to base further rounds of progress.

Having put matters thus, Holbrook proceeds to draw analogies for these key constructs across the two fields. Hence the existing underlying "structure" is linked to the thesis, as it "entails the patterns, contexts, motivations, categories, norms, and conventions that build probabilistic expectations"; the artist and scholar both working within a pre-existing framework of rules, a Kuhnian "paradigm". In a jazz solo, this structure consists of the harmonic and melodic framework of a piece -- the nuts and bolts that the masters pin down via hours of "woodshedding". In a research setting, the structure is the discipline's literature, its practices, extant frameworks, and received wisdom.

Departures from this structure, the antithesis, are caused by playing. By inconsistencies, conflicts, or other incongruities -- departures that are introduced deliberately by musicians into their solos as variations on melody, harmony, or time. Academics observe such departures in their data, or pursue them, as Holbrook says, by having fun. We "play with ideas", he seems to argue, much as we "play music". "By 'play', I refer to the mental habit of pursuing thoughts for their own sake, having fun with ideas, deriving joy from the activity of wrestling with puzzles, letting concepts take on a life of their own..." He quotes the pioneering psychologist Edward Tolman (someone whose work I base much of my own efforts on) as saying, "In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun. And I have had fun."

I believe this point cannot be stressed too heavily. When one thinks of musicians toiling away every night, any concern for their grueling schedules and punishing work loads (or indeed the sheer physical investment required, as any video of Elvin Jones will testify) tends to be mitigated by the little voice of envy that observes people living to do what they love, and harvesting the immense satisfaction of immediate creation. It is the intrinsic motivation that makes it all worthwhile, in spades. To my mind, a researcher too has to live for the thrill of the chase. That apart, there's precious little in the game.

Returning to Holbrook, the third step in the dialectic is the synthesis, the reconciliation, wherein the "violations of organization and deviations from order are made to work via a reinterpretation of the piece within which they fit meaningfully". Such reinterpretations lead a performance to "swing". They also lead to the eureka moments when theory is developed. And that is the crux of the argument.

It is a neat idea overall -- catchy and well put together. It may be possible to dispute the analogy on the grounds that plenty of junk is published in academia, surely more than the number of bad jazz solos. It is a point worth pondering -- what makes an academic paper useful? Personally, I subscribe to the Kuhnian perspective that the bulk of science is about incremental advances. The researcher who spends a lifetime waiting for the apple to fall is unlikely to have contributed anything to mankind's corpus of knowledge (except perhaps a single data point to a hazard rate model of fruit drops). One who puts a shoulder to the wheel in good faith engages in a collaborative human effort -- one that goes back a long way. The magnitude of the visible contribution is not a good metric, as it is often not something that may be judged rightaway. The point is to have fun while doing it.

After all, not every jazz solo is Satchmo on West End Blues, or Bird on Ornithology. As far as I'm concerned, the appropriate model is Sonny Rollins. Ditch the habit, get on the bridge, late at night, every night.

Woodshedding his way to being the Colossus.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The whispering wind

I keep coming back to this theme, but I really hate flying. I'm also quite a non-techy, being dragged kicking and screaming from the wake of one gizmoic advance to the next. And that's why it's interesting, and perhaps why I feel motivated to post this -- about what was possibly the greatest flight I've ever had.

{Except possibly one when I was 10, when we got upgraded to business class and I got to choose my own meal from a real menu. I ordered duck of some sort and it was heavenly. At least, I thought so at that time. In fact, it was so heavenly that I took advantage of one of those feedback forms to praise the service to the skies. Wonder of wonders, I actually got a reply from a VP or something. (Well of course -- how often does a customer service manager get feedback that sounds just like pre-teen gushing?! And given such feedback does land on his desk, which CSM wouldn't reply at once, inviting said customer to buy a lifetime's worth of business class travel? But how was I to know that then, back before my MBA?)}

End digression.

So I put in some 29 hours worth of travel this weekend -- Boston to Detroit to Tokyo to Hong Kong. The first leg saw me upgraded, thanks to my stock of grunt-hours (nay, lifetimes) logged with these particular freighters, but for the longer legs I was back in with the cattle, U of Flyover State not being the sort to over-extend their hospitality for my creature comforts. And the single sole and only reason the entire slog was nothing but a breeze, was these babies.

These - Etymotics, to give them their proper name - are in-ear noise blocking earphones. You push them way way waayyy deeeep into your ear canals, where they (a) block out almost ALL external noise, and (b) provide the most blissful reproductions of whatever your iPod machine cares to serve up. The picture here shows the triple-phalanged tips. They also come with foam tips. You're supposed to roll these tips between your thumb and finger for about ten seconds (a most pleasurable exercise, recalling as it does the physical motions involved in rolling other things that promise bliss within the next few seconds, as soon as you fire them up) to thin them out slightly, then reach over your head with one arm, pull your other ear up, then insert the rolled-up foam-padded ear-plug deep into the pulled-up ear with a twisting motion, keeping your jaw slightly ajar. Then hold the pose for five seconds while the foam expands to seal off your ear canal. And repeat on the other ear/plug.

This sequence of events may naturally cause a fair amount of curiosity and consternation on the part of the person sitting next to you.

But once you're done, stage (a) kicks in. Sheer, utter, blissful SILENCE. On a plane. No roar of engines. No shuddering, juddering hums. No announcements. No crying babies. Nothing. I could not even hear the sound of the flush when I was in the bathroom. It was that quiet.

Stage (b) involves the music. The first track that came on was Dylan's I Want You. I had rarely noticed the interplay of the instruments. The next track was Brown Eyed Women from Dick's Picks 7. I had never noticed the interplay between Weir and Keith. I was hearing things in music that I'd "known" for years. My favorite bands were playing for me; they were inside my head, it was amazing.

And here's the kicker -- the volume control was at levels lower than I'd ever used before. My normal setting on the machine is about 50-55% of maximum. On the flight out, I'd had to have it at around 85% (that's how much the ambient noise on a plane is). This trip, it never went above 25%. My ears thanked me by letting me sleep for seven hours uninterrupted. I normally feel happy if I manage two hours out of sixteen. I woke refreshed. I worked. In Tokyo I recharged the iPod during the one hour layover. I worked and dozed on the last leg of the flight.

And all the while, my iPod sang to me. In my ear, sweet nothings. These etymotics, which I bought on part-impulse after recalling a couple of posts on the GD Hour list, have to rank amongst the best things I have ever acquired. I have bought my peace.

Under the bridges
Over the foam
Wind on the water
Carry me home

Monday, April 24, 2006

All the world s***s in tune

This post cruelly bumped me up with a Tom Lehrer intro, and then led me back into dredging the murky mists of my mind -- all the way back to a time when I was young and the world was a worse place. Someone had written me one of those painful effervescent emails asking me to describe Spring in my part of the world. I had obliged. With this.

> spring is here spring is here
> that wonderful thing on the wing is here.
> across factories and slums and chawls we fly
> speeding through yon old mumbai
> there to the side of the railway tracks
> we see anon those naked backs
> all lined up in a row so straight
> as early morning they defecate.
> while in amongst the commuting crowd
> we hear our neighbours snore aloud
> the local trains all stink of sweat
> and our armpits are already wet..
> but what of wetness, what of smell
> this ain't no thing like the living hell
> of floods and torrents and drains with shits
> that mumbai becomes when the monsoon hits.

I'm not sure whether to be regretful or proud when I report that this is my only work to have been performed in public -- at the British Council in Bangalore. Totally without my prior knowledge or consent.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Boston by foot

Earlier this week, a few thousand people ran by downstairs.

There were professionals, and there were normal people.

So we too braved inclement throat conditions and went on down. People had lined the streets, calling out to the runners as they went by. We too added our voices to the mix.

Some kept going. Some stopped. Some stopped, and then kept going.

A guy went by in a black full-sleeved shirt with a Stealie on it. I yelled, "Deadhead!" He turned around, smiled smiled smiled, and just kept truckin on.

Two Koreans went by, man and woman, with their flag tacked to their outfits. I shouted, "Palli-palli!" (Korean for "Hurry-hurry!", the national motto of South Korea.) The guy jerked his neck round, and without breaking his stride, replied, "Palli-palli?!" Exuberantly, I answered, "Palli-palli!" He waved his hand and said, "Okay, thank you!" and was gone. Folks around seemed impressed, but I found myself regretting not having said "Beckseju".

But of all, quite my favorite was this:

And so we stood, watching them go by. Somehow we missed the guy we'd been waiting to see but that apart, the hours passed happily.

On and on they went, till late in the evening. By 6 or so, mostly they were walking. But still they kept on. And we cheered, till we left.

Another day. Another experience. Today it's traffic as usual.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Inspiration, move me brightly

Flyover State, USA. Town they call A2.
The natives are friendly.

It's four in the morning
Not quite the end of December

And lying awake, I just had my thought for the week.

Bop... or Swing?

Such are the ways of the world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Life's a Ride


Used to be I was younger
Used to be time moved slow
Used to be all was said and done
But I knew nothing 'bout the setting sun

Used to be days seemed longer
Used to be an infinite flow
Used to be days were nothing but time
But at the end of 'em I'd nothing to show

Who ever said one was better
Between night and the light of day
One is trying to get somewhere
While the other might have found his way
Life's a ride
Every bit of the way

Used to be I was restless
Maybe now I still am
Used to be I couldn't sit still in my seat
And now I find I'm jumping out of my skin

Used to be fooling someone
Could've been fooling me
Nobody's fooling anyone now
Now because you know that talk is so cheap

Who ever said one was better
Between night and the light of day
One is trying to get somewhere
While the other might have found his way
Life's a ride
Every bit of the way

(bonus track: family picture, just for the guitar solo)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pedagogical perspicacity, or what?

I learned something this last week. (Yay, hooray, woopee.) Well, at least I think I did.

In contrast to most other weeks - or months, or yea, even years - that find me hidden away from sentient life making eyes at my computer, I actually had some serious human contact last week. (Sentient defined loosely, i.e., not in Turing terms. Please.) Last Monday I taught my undergrad sections and flew to Singapore the same evening. I presented some of my research there while I wasn't digging up pigs' organs and threesomes with James. I also found and under mortal peril photographed a packet of biscuits that had been tossed on the sidewalk, but that's besides the point for now. And Thursday morning I caught an early flight back, prepped on the plane, and walked into my PhD seminar after lunch. Enough excitement to keep me till Christmas, normally, but the funny thing is I have to do it all again next week.

Dramatic pause and time for contemplation. Followed by:

Gratuitous repetition section: I hate flying. Close to forty hours of my Spring Break will be spent in a tin can 30,000 feet in the air, dining on cardboard pretzels and a choice of reheated rubber or plastic. Tragic.

Smooth segue to moral of story.

So what struck me was -- these three types of sessions - undergrad, PhD, and research seminar - were similar and different in a way that I had never thought before. This insight came to me in a flash and the more I think about it, the more convinced I get. Essentially, the undergrads, who are hearing about the basics of the subject for the first time, have in common with the jury of my peers and superiors the fact that both groups require exactly the same set of reinforcements when they sit in front of me -- command, control, and closure. They want to know that I know what I'm talking about, they want the information to be dribbled out to them in digestible doses, and when the hour and a bit is up, they want to know how it all ends so they can sleep easy that night. The absence of any one of these causes great discomfort (which shows in the ratings, god forbid, and alternately in the vibes that spread after the talk and in the one-on-one meetings).

The bottom line is that these seemingly diverse populations both need to be led -- by the hand, step by step, to the safety of the right answer. And while they may question, argue, and maybe even disagree vehemently (much more likely in the latter group, especially with those at tenure give or take a few years ha ha), in the final analysis both groups need to know that I'm in charge. If I can convey that, I walk out of the room on top; satisfied.

Of course, a simpler metric is the number of people asleep when the bell rings.

The funny thing, I realised with a shock, is that it's very different for the PhD class. With them, it's about going to the bottom of the topic for the day -- it's like holding our collective breath and diving below the turbulent surface to the riverbed, and turning up stones looking for clues as to what exactly the river means and why and so what. And here I lead the search for the stones, point to and turn up as many as possible, create links between the pebbles, throw a few around, and in general create even more of a froth than before. As a result, the kids end up feeling stimulated, even vaguely exhilarated at times, but definitely no closure. I claim not to know all the answers -- sometimes I don't even claim to know the questions. And I like to employ long silences at times -- after all, some thinking is best done alone. So here I'm just the guy with the map: it's as if I'm Willy Wonka in the factory in Modern Times, and the greatest satisfaction is in seeing an idea germinate as we struggle with an implication that emerges from the dissatisfaction of a logical inconsistency.

Which of the two is better is probably a question best left to individual preferences. There's an eerie thrill to teaching undergrads at moments when they're led to an answer, and the sudden spark of comprehension appears in their eyes. There's a sense of mastery that comes from the execution of a well-planned sequence of logic, of having orchestrated the moment when it all springs into place. There's a similar sense of mastery too at the research talks, the ha! sucker feeling when insightful questions are answered by the next slide in the presentation, or when the alternative explanation is shot down by the supplementary data. But there's also a sense of gratitude when a good question is posed, a valuable insight proposed, or a relevant cite brought to light. Teaching done well is instant gratification, but the fruits of research, ever more valuable, take years to ripen. There's nothing like the thrill that comes from reading the email carrying the acceptance of an "A" hit, and the fact is that such hits are more likely to be born from the moments of free thrashing unstructure of the PhD seminar. (Never mind the fact that last week's talk led to my being propositioned to collaborate on a Bayesian-analytical model of self-control. Ooga. This is generalization time right now.)

So anyway. Now I have these insights I'm saddled with, and I'm not sure what to do with them. I guess the important thing is to try and remember to not get them mixed up. Especially this week. Jet lag, here I come.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The gift

Much of what one sees on the blogosphere, elegant, entertaining, earnest, elegiac, or otherwise, is hot air.

Here is a link to something that isn't, from someone I am fortunate to know.

Track for the day: Death Don't Have No Mercy
Phil Lesh and Friends, Hammerstein Ballroom NYC, 2/18/2006
(Joan Osbourne on vocals)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Navigating the nanny state

No comment necessary.

Or so I thought till I came across this.

What if James just had a falling out with Brother Koh?

Sitting Here In Limbo

Dateline: Singapore. Poora shahar loin ke naam se jaana jaata hai. Posting while waiting for my email to load :-|

Only two noticeable events in transit.

Event 1: The lady who checked me in at the airport had, at some point in her life, chosen an "English" name for herself. This "English" name was - and continues to be - Trannie.

Why don't people stick to proper nouns?

Event 2: The iPod's coming out party. Huge success. I smirked at Fate and the evil ways of the transportation industry right through the journey (although the earphones are uncomfortable). But that was more than compensated for by the sheer joy of hearing the Pather Panchali theme segue into Whole Lotta Love. Into a Baul tune. Into Sonny Rollins doing Oleo. Into Miles Runs The Voodoo Down. Into Stevie Ray jamming with Buddy Guy. The audacity, the sheer postmodernity of it, was breathtaking.

And Joan Baez sang please come to Boston in the springtime. What foresight, itelloo.

And Garcia and Grisman covered Jimmy Cliff's Sitting Here in Limbo, which qualifies as the Most Perfect Song Ever Written to be Equally and Uniquely Applicable to Life as well as Airports. I wish I could find a version online to link to. (You can also check it out on Grateful Dawg.) The movie the song originally came from, The Harder They Come (also a Jimmy Cliff tune, also covered by JG), is available on the Criterion Collection -- it's not the greatest piece of cinema ever but you can use it to stock up on raw, pure heart. Trust Jerry to turn it to gold.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


this post started off as a response to a comment on my previous post, but then it started growing legs and a tail of its own so i decided to give it wing. it's about the so-called indian obsession with the raj. suitably tempered since this is a public forum, but rant alert anyway.

i hear it every once in a while, but i never get *what* the point is with people saying indians are obsessed with the raj. first question: does this statement mean that we love it to shreds, or are we supposed to hate it to shreds, or do we just give it too much importance, or do we over-pretend to ignore it and say it doesn't affect us when actually we're tearing up inside?

notice that that covers all bases. i.e., when the topic of the raj comes up, pretty much whatever we do can be attributed, by the above means, to an obsession with the raj. to me, that signals that the obsession is in the eyes of the attributor, not the attributee. it's as scientific an analysis as dr. freud's saying you did x because you loved your mother -- all behavior can be explained by that diagnosis, since your doing not-x was also due to your having loved your mother. whatever we ever say or do wrt our mother the raj is due to our obsession with her. it. of course.

frankly, the raj is very very low on the list of things that worries me right now. or even attracts my attention -- this post notwithstanding. i have a lot of things on my mind, and believe me, that period of history, with its trappings, has not had very much airtime recently. in fact, the concept of england as a whole hasn't bothered me very much of late. i can think of only two intersections between my paths and that of the ye olde -- one, the telephone operator (a *manual* operator!) at london business school where i've had to call a few times this semester, and two, the brits on the cricket fields in india. okay, so i've thought about the latter a bit. they've played very well indeed, but i don't see how the raj comes into it. i certainly don't see how the raj could have anything to do with the fact that i've been rooting for india during this series -- that would take us back to dr. freud and the conclusion that my rooting against *any* countryis due to the raj. well, put that way, we wouldn't have had an india without the raj. consider me suitably obsessed.

but turn the question on its head -- would that explain why england is the lowest on my cricket-cheering hierarchy? i have the cricket-playing teams in a sequence all worked out in my head, and generally cheer for a team that's ranked higher on my list when it plays one that is lower. i consider that logical, more importantly, it makes it more fun for me when i follow games between neutrals. and yes, england is always at the bottom, which means the poor sods never get my support (big flipping deal). now is *that* due to my obsession with the raj? or is it due to the fact that i cut my viewing teeth on the broad nothingness of chris tavare and geoffrey boycott's bats? followed by such eternal sunshines as graham gooch, graeme hick, and mike atherton (yes, he of the shocking, "aleem dar, the so-called neutral" comment). i admit gower was good and botham was interesting, but from then to flintoff has there been a larger collection of bad, boring, and pretentious non-characters in a team? or is that my raj obsession speaking?

would that explain my aversion to the english weather? wet, wet, wet, and pissing rain. avacoopuvtea, luv, the place is one of the most morbid places to live and that has nothing to do with history.

would that explain my liking for monty python and rowan atkinson? ooh, they enslaved us and now look how silly they act. ribbit ribbit. or yes minister or the office? or the beatles or the stones or van morrison? how about goodness gracious me? i knew that.

it's a broad brush indeed, that paints me in with the raj lovers. i don't deny that there may be a bunch of people who are actually obsessed with it. are these the same indians who are obsessed with the england of today? and how are these indians different from the indians who are obsessed with america, or canada, or the middle east or new zealand or any other place where the world is phoren like in the movies they subsist on? how many of them even make the connection between the glitzy world of the whiteskin, and the long-ago indignities that supposedly morphed all their forefathers into coconuts?

someone i know visited london for the first time a while back and went to see the tower jewels. on the way out, he saw the voluntary donation thing, and he stopped and exclaimed loudly -- "they stole all of that from my country, and now they want me to donate to see it!" obsession?

or touche?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

It's That Time of Year Again

"You know your Shelley, Bertie.''
"Oh, am I?''

- The Code of the Woosters (1938)
[Courtesy: The Random Wodehouse quote generator.]

Happy April Fools' Day, everybody.