Nomological Net

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


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Whoa, you don't know...

The last couple of months have been a bit shall we say hectic.
And the last couple of days have been a minor explosion at the juncture of my personal and professional lives. Nothing bad, just a little kind of good kind of explosion.
Now my brain needs a rest.
Fortunately, within 24 hours, we'll be in Wonderland.
So regular service will probably resume in a week's time.

Meanwhile, here's one for the moment:

The Shape I'm In
Guilty Pleasures
(David Gans, Klyph Black, Rob Barraco, Barry Sless, Adam Perry)
McKinleyville, CA, May 06, 2005


Monday, May 22, 2006

Goin' Down The Road

Just got back from a few days in Denver. Met up with two of my oldest and closest friends, one of whom had his parents visiting. I hadn't seen these guys for a year and a half. I hadn't seen the parents since 1992. The homemade dosas were as good as ever.

On Friday, the three of us made a day trip out to the Rockies, looping around from the southwestern side of Denver (near the famous Red Rocks venue) up north-west to Boulder, and back. It was brilliant fun.

At one point, the sun was out and the road empty. The views had been magnificent all along. We pulled back the sun-roof and I from the back seat poked first my camera and then my head through. The onrushing wind was cold, sharp, and left me totally breathless and exhilarated. The non-driver followed suit. The music system was blaring Kishore Kumar, Zindagi ek safar hai suhana! It was just right, and the three of us proceeded to first join in the chorus EEE Hee hee hee heeee and then amend the lyrics to our pleasure. I caught the whole thing on film, it was just like a Hindi movie.

And then I sat back down. I clicked the camera onto play mode, to check whether the movie had come out okay or not. The song changed. Some idiot somewhere had thought it was great production values to follow the exuberant effervescent Zindagi ek safar with the dolorous mournful Zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar. And in a flash, looking through a two inch screen at the bald spots of people I've known and loved for twenty, close to thirty years, I thought -- Which of us will go first?

The song passed. We put on Moondance. We broke to frolic at a stream. Good photos came. We drove back to Denver in the late afternoon sun, without music. Somehow, that moment brought me back down to earth, put the whole everything in perspective, and made it all even more worthwhile.

Track for the day:
Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad
Railroad Earth with Phil Lesh
San Francisco, 4/16/2005

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Theory Development as Freak Management

This is the second in an intermittent series of ruminations (the first being here). This post is what makes it a series, so hooray.

As you may have guessed, this post was inspired by my reading of the book Freakonomics. First off, it's an excellent book, but that wasn't my first reaction to it. I'd learned about it pretty much as soon as it came out last year, and the few pages I'd read off a friend's coffee table were definitely interesting. However I'd waited till last month to pick it up (Singapore airport bookstore impulse!), and the reason was simply -- the title. "Economics", as "oikos" + "nomos", translates roughly to "household management". The quest for the sexy title had led this book to be called "freak management", and that gave me pause. Was this a boo-boo, or was someone having a quiet laugh in the corner?

I was right, in a way. Much as this book is about the hard science of interesting questions well answered, it is also, in almost-equal parts, a hagiographic rumba around the Missing Beatle of Academia. Every chapter interlude contains italicized rhapsodies about the Great Levitt, including such wonders as how he notices headphones on a hobo (no kidding). At first, this was more than a little irritating. Then an extract from a speech I'd read came to mind: this is from Frank Kardes' presidential address to the Society for Consumer Psychology.

Many people believe ... [experimental] psychology is not useful. Laypeople want simple, concrete, and easy-to-use information, and this is not the type of information that is provided by experimental psychologists. However, many practising psychologists are more than happy to provide this type of information on television talk shows, self-help books, and audiotapes on psychokinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, astral projection, ESP, biorhythms, holistic medicine, psychic 'surgery', pyramid power, and subliminal persuasion. Unfortunately, the public pays much more attention to the charlatans than to the scientists because the charlatans are much more entertaining.

I'm a marketing person. If this kind of freak management is what it takes to sell some real research to the paying public, how can I be against it?

The great strength of the book, naturally, is the great work of Steven Levitt. The man has a knack for identifying interesting questions as well as really intelligent ways of trying to answer them. These have been well documented in the myriad reviews the book has spawned -- the advent of abortion in the 70s as an explanation for the crime drop of the 90s; catching schoolteachers cheating for their students' benefit by developing an algorithm that checks for systematic repetitions of strings on multiple choice answer sheets; why drug dealers live with their mothers; forms of racism on open fora such as The Weakest Link; myths of parenting. As long as one is agnostic about what the data reveal, there isn't very much to quibble with here. The questions he chooses are very important, and his analysis strategies are unique. And usually brilliant.

But this book is about more than the freak that is Levitt. At one level, it is also about the freak questions that he asks. What, at first blush, does Roe vs. Wade have to do with Giuliani's seeming success story? Yet, once it's put that way, the immediate response is, Hmm, couldn't it?

Levitt's brilliance is in managing to ask a question as freaky as that.

I'm going to take this argument further, now, possibly beyond the scope of this book. The skill to ask such freaky questions is enviable, yet, I'd argue it isn't unique. Indeed, at some level, every good doctoral program drills the motto Ask interesting questions into everyone that passes through it. Years 2, 3, and 4 of most PhD students' lives are spent wrestling with the question What exactly *is* interesting? (often in more communicative language). Yet every successful dissertation eventually has an advisor and a committee behind it, admitting - sometimes grudgingly, sometimes reservedly - that yes, the question was interesting. Every published paper needs to pass that test. But even Levitt, for all his freaky interesting questions, for all his "Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" blurbs, doesn't really give us very much of a theory. Of anything.

I realize that's a controversial statement to make, the word "theory" itself being so nebulous. All Levitt's hypotheses could well be cast as theories in the sense that they explain why certain things happened the way they happened (and might well happen again, if things were to stay the same). However, to my non-economist mind, a theory has to have predictive power as well as descriptive. What Levitt demonstrates is an astonishing power to uncover covariations between variables. And here I find my third spin on Theory Development as Freak Management -- the management of freaky data.

The positivist research process in social science, much as we hate to admit it, is appallingly linear. Blame this if you will on the human tendency to interpret all information in terms that support their prior beliefs. Social scientists develop hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and check to see whether their hypotheses are supported or not. Data where the initial hypotheses are only partially (I mean tantalizingly partially) supported, are sifted, sorted, coaxed, and battered till the green light of statistical significance is seen. Data that do not support the hypotheses are usually junked without ceremony. Our eyes seek desperately for particular patterns in the data, specific numbers and trends that would confirm our beliefs. Often as not, we miss the freaks -- the numbers that stand out, do not conform, that tell us things we hadn't thought to think. And it is of vital importance that we not miss the freaks in our data.

I say this from personal experience. Twice in my research life so far, I have caught a freak. Both times unexpected, unpredicted, and with hugely beneficial consequences. One freak got me a published paper plus five more in the pipeline, the other one a large chunk of my dissertation. It scares me to think about the amount of data I have rejected as "does not work", and the number of freaks that may have gotten away. Yet - as with many of Levitt's contentions - this one too is evident in hindsight: our reasoning powers are limited. We cannot predict everything. If we are reasonably competent, our investigations will lead us close to a "truth". However, we can never be confident of being anything except in the vicinity, and it is the unexpected variation in the data that often leads us to what we were seeking, but did not know.

That, to me, is the hidden beauty of the research process. That is theory development as freak management.

Friday, May 12, 2006

And why not?

(Herbie Hancock cover)
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe
Jam Cruise IV, 1/8/2006

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


I found this most amazing toy. It's called Audacity. It's freeware, downloadable in a trice. And once you have it, it lets you PLAY AROUND WITH AUDIO FILES!

Here's just a sampling of the things that you can do with this wild and wonderful tool:

Amplify - changes the volume of the selected audio.

BassBoost - enhances the bass frequencies

Change Pitch - changes the pitch/frequency of the selected audio without changing the tempo. (Can also change speed and tempo.)

Click Removal - removes clicks on recordings from vinyl records without damaging the rest of the audio. You can choose how sensitive the click detection is, and what the maximum length of a click is.

Echo - repeats the selection with a decay, sounding like a series of echos.

Equalization - Boost or reduce arbitrary frequencies. You can select one of a number of different curves designed to equalize the sound of some popular record players, or draw your own curve.

Noise Removal - lets you clean up noise from a recording.

Repeat - repeats the selection a certain number of times.

Reverse - reverses the selected audio temporally; after the effect the end of the audio will be heard first and the beginning last.

Wahwah - uses a moving bandpass filter to create its sound.

Geek heaven.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Bag it, tag it

The tag. ex-Scout. And dared by Kundalini. Watch your backs, both of youse.

Eight different points "of" my perfect lover. Hmm. That instruction is filled with interesting possibilities, but I'll let them pass and play this with a straight bat (just to prove to myself that I can). So, here goes:

She should
- Be able to hold up one end of a logical discussion.
- Be able to build independent friendships with my friends.
- Be ready to experiment in foods and places.
- Want some of my favorite disks more than I do.
- Know when to be quiet.

She should not
- Change the channel when there's cricket.
- Walk out of a P&F show.
- Throw eggplants.

Over and out. I'm not passing this on to anyone, since an egg in hand is worth two on the wall. Sell it to the butcher in the store.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A little velvet moo

We were drivin through West Texas
The land of beef and pork
Where they tend the hides of leather
We wear back in New York
In a pasture, along a roadside
Behind a brokedown shack
On a dusky side of evening
We saw a figure dressed in black

And we don't mean to sound like we're trippin
But we swear to God
We saw Lou Reed cow tippin
Cow tippin

Hey Lou, "Is that you?"
She said as we pulled to the shoulder
He just said, "Go screw."
And then he turned and tipped one over
Under a spitshine Western sky
The color of blue varnish
Hey it's like Fellini
Actually I'm thinkin more like Jim Jarmusch

And we can't say how much we've been sippin
But we swear to God
We saw Lou Reed cow tippin
Cow tippin

I got cops on the cell
I said I got a little story to tell
Lou Reed is in the cow pen
They said, Oh no! Not again!

And we hope our perceptions isn't slippin
But we swear to God
We saw Lou Reed cow tippin
Cow tippin

Cow tippin
Cow tippin
Cow tippin
You really think that was Lou Reed?
Cow tippin
I'm sure it was, he was wearing black Levis
Cow tippin
I thought he was a vegetarian
Cow tippin
He's just tippin them over, he wasn't eating them
Cow tippin
Cow tippin

"Lou Reed", The Little Willies (listen here).

[So Norah Jones has a sense of humor... too!]

Saturday, May 06, 2006

x degrees of forgetting

Today's haul:

- "The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs," by Richard Davenport-Hines (there was also "Cannabis" but this seemed - you know - broader)
- "Genes, Peoples and Languages," by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (yes, I did buy it for the author's name too)
- "A Brief History of the Smile," by Angus Trumble (see above)
- "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive," by Jared Diamond (this being the one I had actually gone in to get)

There's obviously more flying coming up. But if that wasn't all, we also succumbed to:

- Terence Blanchard -- Flow (finally)
- The Little Willies (don't you want to know more)
- Fela -- The '69 LA Sessions

Not a single DVD. Our restraint was commendable.

But that's not the point of this post. (At least, it wasn't when I started.) The point is that this morning, looking out over my balcony, I suddenly stumbled upon a memory that I'd not wanted to remember. I'm not sure how that happened -- in retrospect it may have been this post, or maybe it was the picture that had unfolded rainlessly before my eyes, or something else altogether. But suddenly it was there, calling out for attention like a scab that hadn't been picked on for a while.

Gratuitous Picture of View from Author's Balcony

My mind flickered for an instant with the idea of toying with the scab, and then decided that now was not the time. Ironic, I thought. A part of my undergraduate course deals with the structure and working of human memory -- the model of the mind as a network, with all knowledge, ideas, thoughts, emotions, goals, and memories linked and hyperlinked to each other in a vast and complex grid. Remembering things is like dipping into a bucket -- objects near the surface get pulled out easily; objects with many linkages are easier to fish out too. Those near the bottom, or with few other connections, languish forgotten in the secret recesses of the bucket.

This explains why repeating a piece of information can make it easier to remember -- the frequency of exposure drags the item towards the surface. Thinking about something also makes it harder to forget since the act of 'elaboration' can strengthen old linkages and build new ones with other items floating around. This explains why when we try to remember something, related cues often help in the recall. This explains chains of thought and streams of consciousness. And this is why forgetting cannot happen without the complete absence of rumination. But now, I was ruminating again.

I tried another good strategy. Distraction. I got up and went to work. I've been cracking my skull open on some intransigent data for a couple of days now (actually, the data have been this way since February 2003, the filename informs me). I cracked some more. I wanted to get this project out of the way this week since the one waiting in line excites me more. That one too has lots of data. And some really cool studies. In one experiment, I got groups of people to read a passage from Sherlock Holmes and... but I ramble.

At 5 o'clock, my data were stalled; a decision needed to be made; my collaborator had emailed to say let's talk on Monday; I decided to make an early Saturday of it.

I headed off to run an errand. The errand got run more efficiently than I'd expected. I realized I was three storeys beneath a bookstore. It's been a while since I was in one. I went.

I saw a kid holding a Sherlock Holmes omnibus.

I remembered the passage in my experiment.

The passage was about how one thing leads to another.

I remembered my memory again.

I think I need a drink.


In case you're wondering, here's the passage:

HOLMES had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot.
"So, Watson," said he, suddenly, "you do not propose to invest in South African securities?"
I gave a start of astonishment. Accustomed as I was to Holmes's curious faculties, this sudden intrusion into my most intimate thoughts was utterly inexplicable.
"How on earth do you know that?" I asked.
He wheeled round upon his stool, with a steaming test-tube in his hand,
and a gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes.
"Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback," said he.
"I am."
"I ought to make you sign a paper to that effect."
"Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly simple."
"I am sure that I shall say nothing of the kind."
"You see, my dear Watson"--he propped his test-tube in the rack, and began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class--"it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect. Now, it was not really difficult, by an inspection of the groove between your left forefinger and thumb, to feel sure that you did not propose to invest your small capital in the gold fields."
"I see no connection."
"Very likely not; but I can quickly show you a close connection. Here are the missing links of the very simple chain: 1. You had chalk between your left finger and thumb when you returned from the club last night. 2. You put chalk there when you play billiards, to steady the cue. 3. You never play billiards except with Thurston. 4. You told me, four weeks ago, that Thurston had an option on some South African property which would expire in a month, and which he desired you to share with him. 5. Your check book is locked in my drawer, and you have not asked for the key. 6. You do not propose to invest your money in this manner."
"How absurdly simple!" I cried.
"Quite so!" said he, a little nettled. "Every problem becomes very childish when once it is explained to you."

I have a Chianti lying around, that might be nice.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Guns warm and smoking

A lurker whose opinions I value emailed me yesterday to say that "it's time to get rocking (as opposed to cranking)". So folks I bring to you a track from this stellar show that's been looping continuously on my office Winamp for the last three days. I'm hoping posting about it will make it go away. Here's:

Happiness is a Warm Gun
The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
SUNY Binghampton, 3/8/06

Have the Beatles ever had such a lugubrious, lurid, luvable cover?

Busyness as usual otherwise (and yes, young Scoutling, I haven't forgotten about you). Except, in a remarkable concatenation of circumstances, I caught a grad student plagiarizing on a paper. It was a skillful job and when confronted - nonconfrontationally, I have to add - he claimed he wasn't aware it was crossing the line. It was amazing to see his expression change when I told him about cases where people (at NYU, Columbia, Illinois...) have been asked to leave their programs / had their funding cut off for doing exactly what he had done. The smile was sucked off his face like someone turned a vacuum cleaner on inside his mouth :-)

I chatted with him for half an hour. Eventually, he left my room smiling once more. I hope I handled it well; more importantly, I hope he doesn't do it again. It's too warm a gun.