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, September 28, 2006

Laying it on thick

There are many worse things in this world, for sure. However, that knowledge by itself doesn't make a sixteen hour plane journey any the more enjoyable. On my latest such trip day before yesterday, the in-flight magazine contained some raving information about the new model Boeing, due out in 2008. Apparently this machine will herald a new frontier in air travel comfort. All passengers will have access to 8% more oxygen than they currently do.

I read that line and wondered what exactly it meant. Do we now get less oxygen than we're supposed to? Is this somewhat like putting air travelers in suspended animation, putting their brain cells on hibernate while they're dragged through the Arctic skies? Is this why flying has such an adverse physical effect on me?

Or is it just my plain old bugbear, dehydration? It was about six years ago, on a late night trans-Atlantic shipment, that I found one of my prime desi characteristics stripped from me. It was the night after Christmas, and the temperature had dropped to 17 F in New York. Our plane was one of the last to be able to take off from JFK before a snowstorm closed the airport off for a couple of days. Small wonder that once aboard, I climbed into the alcohol. Well, not quite. One glass of wine, and a cognac after dinner, I think. That was enough to do it -- I spent the next six hours in agony, and when the morning came I realised that the combination of alcohol and the interior of an airplane were more dehydrating than my body could bear.

That realization brought with it two changes in my behavior. One, I stopped consuming alcohol on board. It hurt a little at first, but then the omniscient American airlines started asking you to pay for your drink, and then all was well. And two, I started hoarding those little tubes of moisturizer that you get at hotels. And carried them on board. In my cargo pants. In my laptop bag. In my carry-on strolley. Everywhere. Just in case.

And I used them too. Every few hours. Drink water. Apply moisturizer. Suspend-animate. Repeat.

It worked.

And then they banned moisturizers on board. It defies me completely. Someone's going to hijack a plane with Vaseline? Attack a flight attendant with Nivea? Watch out lady, or I tar you with this vanishing cream and then where will you be? How does one synthesize, on board, in full view of a few hundred people, an explosive out of cosmetics?

But more on that in a second. The announced ban was on "liquids, creams and gels". Solid moisturizers, such as lip balm, were allowed. My task was obvious. I needed to locate me some solid moisturizer. So I roped in a lady friend (you think I was going to try this alone?) and made paths for the cosmetics shops.

Unfortunately, as I have had occasion to comment before, Hong Kong is not the best place in the world to try and communicate in English. "Excuse me, do you have any solid moisturizers?" we said.

"Soh-lid-ah?" they said.

They looked at each other. They looked around. They had never heard of this brand before.

They offered us the closest tube. "No, no, not liquid," we said, "Liquid. Not. Not liquid." "Ahh, gel-aah?" "No, no! Not gel. Not cream. Solid."
Blank stares. Next shop.

We tried Sasa. We tried Shue Uemura. Crabtree & Evelyn. The Body Shop. A hundred other places I'd never, ever, ever be dragged into under normal circumstances. No one had heard of "Solid", the brand or the state of matter. They looked at us, wondrously. What childs of creation were these? What crazy gweilos.

We came home defeated, two days in a row. That second evening, however, someone suggested the brand known as Burt's Bees. I recalled having seen a counter in a particular mall. The third - and last possible before flying - day, we went there. The usual mixture of noxious chemicals greeted us, arranged to trap all passing insecurities. "We don't sell lipstick," had said Charles Revson, "We sell hope." And so it was - hope it is we were after, after all.

Ignoring the English-sounding overtures of the sales rep, we rifled through the stocks, opening up the cans labeled "Tester". Sure enough, Burt's Bees was it. Two little jars, side by side, contained what could arguably be said to be a solid substance. One was labeled "Day Creme", the other, "Night Creme". Day Creme was the larger of the two, but only marginally more expensive. Night Creme was more solid.

What's the difference, we asked the rep. "Oh, Day Creme is for day, sir, Night Creme is for night," we were told.

Of course. Silly %^&#ing me.

I bought the Night Creme. After all, solidity was the attribute of choice, and I could always argue that I'd plan to be asleep on the plane, right?

Back home, I was even smarter. My friend and I divvied the little jar-ful up into three. One she kept, as commission. One I shoved into my suitcase. The third, in the original casing, went into my carry-on. And I, with hope, went to the airport.

I cleared the first round of security with flying colors. Nothing explosive about me. It was at the second round, in the face of an impassive security agent, that it all came undone. My bag was on his table. His hand was in my bag. He felt around. I'm guessing he ignored the laptop, the camera, the i-poodle, the various power cords, the cereal bars, the book, the papers. Purely on touch, he pulled out the jar. His grunt signaled that he wanted me to open it. I complied, safe in the knowledge that I was standing in front of a sign that said solid moisturizers were allowed.

Mr. Hong Kong grunted: "Cream".

My delicate ear winced. Not only was it "Creme", it was not. It was solid. I said as much. "Not cream. Solid." "No," he said, "Cream." "Solid!" I said. "Soh-lid-aah!" I pointed at the sign. "Solid! Solid! Not cream!"

Nothing doing. He wanted the jar for his collection.

In dismay, I plunged a finger in and scooped out half the remaining contents. Dashed them against my forearm - an angry welt of white. Dammit, if this was explosive, then I'm a suicide bomber.

Funnily enough, he didn't object to my walking away with the gunk on my arm. He just wanted the bottle. Figure that.

I spent the flight feeling like a piece of wood, whorls of dryness lining my insides like the rings of a tree.

And I got off the plane to read that the rules changed while I was up their. The authorities (the words infinite and wisdom come to mind) have now decided that hijackers will not be able to synthesize explosives from small quantities of liquids and gels and creams. Overnight, technology has retarded so fast that terrorists will henceforth be unable to mix four-ounce portions of Jergens to create a box cutter. Or maybe someone wanted papaya infusion for the "steak" they got served on board.

PS. Just in case you were wondering why KY jelly was never on the forbidden list, it's because them jehadists ain't into sex bombs.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

More Dog Than Your Dog

Previous separateds: 1, 2, 3.

Friday, September 22, 2006

To Use the Parlance of our Times

- This is about unchecked aggression, dude. It's about drawing a line in the sand. This aggression will not stand, man.
- And proud we are of all of them. Yes, yes.
- Different mothers, huh?
- Careful, man. There's a beverage here.
- It's down there somewhere. Let me take another look.
- Certain things have come to light, man. New shit has come to light. Ins and outs, what have youse.
- Am I wrong? Am I wrong?
- I am the walrus.
- Shut up Donnie.
- Ve chhump on it and ve sqvish it.
- Dude's got a beeper.
- I bet he's still got nine-hundred sixty, nine-hundred seventy, depending on the options.
- Uh, I'm just gonna go find a cash machine.
- Sometimes you eat the bar, and the bar, well, sometimes he eats you.
- That some kind of Eastern thing?
- You can imagine where it goes from here.
- He fixes the cable?
- Let me tell you something pendejo. Dios mio, it don't matter to Jesus.
- Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!
- Obviously you're not a golfer.
- It tied the room together, man.
- I could just be sitting at home with pee stains on my rug.
- Hell, I can get you a toe by three o'clock this afternoon. With nail polish.
- You're entering a world of pain.
- Johnson?

Hah! Right now, more words = superfluous. Especially if you're spitting your brains out laughing already. If not, you haven't lived. And in case you're wondering what else I been up to this evening ~ in case you're into that whole brevity thing ~ here it is.


Two in one evening, man. The Dude abides.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Color photos of the big guy, on special request.

Oh, and there's a feeling running through ya!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Smilin' like a Booda

"This is a very good place, this is the rest before the chorus!"

Like a Buddha [VBR MP3]
Railroad Earth
Denver, CO, 7/6/2006 [Stream the show]


The "Big Buddha" at the Po Lin Monastery. Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Worthwhile day trip, to become even better once they get the cable cars going.
But Don't Throw Coin.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Watching me watching you

Beard censorship on the cards? Would be, if commenter #14's entirely reasonable logic is to be followed.

Time to get the boyish good looks back out again, I suppose.

But even that may be dangerous.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


So Saturday evening a few of us found ourselves in office and decided to go out for dinner. I picked up the phone to make a reservation. Cardinal mistake.

*tring tring*
- Hello, is this the S___ restaurant?
- Yes.
- Hi, could I please make a reservation? For four people?
- Four people, siiir?
- Yes, please.
- You want reservation for four people, siiir?
- Uh, yes, please. For 7:30?
- Siiir, this is not restau-rant. For bo-dy massage siiir.
- Excuse me?!
- Siiir, this is for bo-dy massage. You want for four people?
- Uh. No, thank you.
*Exit, pursued by a bare*

The larger picture, of course, is that one should never ever try to conduct a phone conversation with an unknown other in English, in Hong Kong. The first problem is that the simple word "Yes", which one is accustomed to thinking of as a signal of affirmation, of agreement, actually represents something very different. When a Hong Kong person replies to you saying "Yes", what they really mean is not "Yes, I agree with you", but "Yes, I detect that you are making noises and yes, I recognize that these noises fall under the broad category known as English." That's about the gist of it.

The mother of all these Yes phone exchanges took place a couple of years ago, when we had just arrived in HK. This was before we embarked on our first leg of setting-the-house-up. Thankfully it wasn't me on the phone, but the better half (thankfully because I was free of distractions and could commit the scene to reasonable memory). The exchange went somewhat as follows:

- Hello, is this Fortress? [A local electronics chain]
- Yes.
- Okay. I'm wondering, do you sell stereo systems?
- Sorry?
- I said, do you sell stereo systems?
- Sorry?
- Stereo systems. You know? CD player? Hi-fi? Audio system? S t e r e o s y s t e m ? [Explosion of prompting backstage, as yours truly takes on role of impromptu thesaurus]
- Oh, okay. Yes.
- [Heave sigh] Great. Thank you. Which brands do you have?
- Sorry?
- I said, which brands do you have? Do you have [frantic prompting begins again]Sony? Panasonic? Aiwa? Sanyo? Toshiba?
- Yes.
- I'm sorry, did you say you have Sony?
- Yes.
- [Another heaved sigh] Thank you! Now... do you have microwaves?
- Sorry?
- M i c r o w a v e s. I'd like to know -- do you have microwaves?
- Sorry, Sony not make mic-ro-wave.
[Flabbergasted pause]
- Thank you. *Click*

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Lost treasure

I just came across this amazing collection of old jazz videos.

It features, for instance:
- Nine whole minutes worth of Trane and Getz dueting, the only known occasion. Backed by Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums (that's the line-up!) and Oscar Peterson and Wynton Kelly both on piano (watch it to see)
- Five minutes worth of Trane's quartet, yes that one: Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner.
- A full sixteen minutes of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers from 1963, featuring Freddie Hubbard and a young Wayne Shorter(!)
[I keep wanting to stop typing this post and go back and watch the clips again.]
- Half an hour of Cannonball Adderley, featuring a young Joe Zawinul.
- Over twenty minutes of Mingus.
- Over a dozen minutes of Monk.
- Even a few seconds of Bird and Diz! Playing the theme to A Night in Tunisia :-)
And if you thought that was a little one track (pun unintended ha ha) (pity you), they even have some Zappa.

But for all that (and I haven't seen all the clips yet), the highlight for me is Billie Holiday's legendary CBS Jazz All-stars TV performance of "Fine and Mellow", with Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Mal Waldron (piano) Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Danny Barker (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Ossie Johnson (drums). Why is it legendary? Well, the full story is here. But the gist of the matter is as follows. Bille Holiday (Lady Day) and Lester Young (Prez) had been lovers, once, long ago.

They had made their first unforgettable records together 20 years earlier and had subsequently fallen out, most likely over Holiday's drug use. "They had grown way apart," Hentoff said, "and when we were there for the blocking and the sound check, they very carefully were on different sides of the studio." Young was too weak to play in the big band section of the show, so Hentoff told him he should save his strength for a small-group session with Holiday. "And you can sit down. You don't have to stand."

They were to perform Fine and Mellow, Holiday's own song and one of the very few blues she ever recorded. Gerry Mulligan played the first solo, in double time. Ben Webster came next, blowing a single breathy, heartbreaking chorus. "Then, Lester got up," Hentoff remembered, "and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half-smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they still went their separate ways."
Watch it and see.

Friday, September 08, 2006

That feeling of awe

I'm in a little bit of shock and I don't know how to put this.

It's 4 in the afternoon and I'm in my office.A little over two years ago when I arrived in Hong Kong, I started a research project with someone in my department. This person is a few years senior to me, and has been a close collaborator with my advisor. So much so that as a grad student I'd effectively been his RA at times, since I used to work at night in the US, which is while he was online in HK. He was also instrumental in bringing me here, pulling for me at recruiting meetings and pushing me hard when I was undecided. Plus he's a great fun person, heavily into cricket, etc. etc. etc.

However, his research area was completely different from mine, but at that stage after tenure, he was looking to broaden out a little. So he had this idea which he broached to me. It didn't sound like the most exciting thing in the world but I said what they hey, let's try it. I thought it would be good to have some research projects with people in my new department, and this one was good enough.

Somewhere along the line, during the discussions, a third person got invited on to the project. He's based in the US and was passing through HK at the time, and got talking about this.

The three of us exchanged a few emails. The two of us in Hong Kong did more of the talking. Eventually, we ran an experiment. It was a very careful, methodical, and interesting study involving a "real behavioral dependent variable" -- something that gets a lot of weight in the field. [It was stuff to do with how people's impulsive behaviors depend on other recent behaviors, and we had our participants doing stuff and then being allowed to eat from bowlsful of cheeseballs which, unknown to them, were counted by our RAs. It was all very cool.] However, none of our initial hypotheses was supported. The only spark was one little pattern, which we thought might be interesting to pursue.

So we thought about it, and delayed, and discussed a little more, emailed the guy in the US a couple of updates, and finally several months later ran a second study with a modified agenda. However, there again our hypotheses weren't really supported except for again, one little pattern that may have been argued to be consistent with the previous one. We didn't really know why, though.

At this stage, I'd about given up on the project. A year and a half had passed and I had other projects that were more promising, more interesting, and more fun. I'd been fortunate to get some good publications in quickly, and didn't really need this distraction, this "dog" project. Plus the brand of cheeseballs that we'd been using went out of business. That seemed like a sign.

But then we got invited onto a session that someone in Germany was organizing for the field's main conference. You get three papers together and make up a session proposal, people evaluate the thing and decide whether to accept the session or not. Getting invited onto this session meant we had to have a coherent story to tell. We almost turned the invitation down, but then thought it might help as a last gasp motivator to revive the project and get something done. So we toiled on - more from a sense of duty than adventure. The US guy had woken up meanwhile, and sent in a couple of enquiries about the progress. We emailed back and forth and finally settled on a story that might explain our data. But we needed more support, especially if we were to present at this conference.

So we had to get some more data, and so we ran a third study back in May. Yet again, the results were disappointing. While the basic pattern was again there in the data, the rest of what we saw refuted what we'd written in the proposal. To make things worse, the session proposal got accepted. So now we really had to figure out how to avoid making fools of ourselves (best strategy: go up there, waffle for fifteen minutes by presenting a literature review aka "other people's work", quickly flash a couple of non-controversial results, smile brightly, apologize for running out of time, invite anyone interested to "contact us after the talk", disappear). July-August saw some frantic emailing back and forth. We remembered that the US guy had proposed a different study back in May. Pressure on him to collect some data there. New story constructed on the basis of three disappointing experiments run to date. Conference in the end of September. Self ~ aka presenter ~ psyching up to be at bullshitting best.

Last week, I put together the presentation on the basis of the three experiments we had. It felt like sculpting bullshit -- that's exactly what I said to a colleague one day. But having done it, I felt better. I almost even believed what I was planning to say. Almost.

This morning, the new data from the fourth study came in. It's a drastically different study with a drastically different methodology, involving response times calibrated down to milliseconds. The guy in the US emailed in practically each analysis as he ran it, while the two of us in HK interpreted the numbers and suggested new tests. It is unbelievable - the patterns almost exactly support the new story, the one we arrived on after months of wrangling and hopelessness. Suffice it to say that we are pretty close to speechless.

There's a bit in Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman where he talks about walking out into the night after stumbling onto some patterns in his data. He talks about the wonder of being the first person in the world to know something -- being for a brief instant the only person to know it.

In some small little way, that's what I have right now. That feeling of awe.

It's that joy of doing research. That's why I do this.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Separated at birth vol. 3.

Okay, maybe not quite at birth.

Previous separateds here and here.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Nowadays, everything cool is prefixed with i-.

Five years ago, everything was e-.

Look for the next wave to be o-.

You heard it here first.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


Yesterday was our Department Boat Trip Party day. (That's how it was announced, and that's what the multiple reminder emails were titled.) Much as it sounds, a couple of times every year, a large part of our department gets onto a rented boat, takes a trip, and has a party.

We were all supposed to assemble at the university pier at 2:15. At 1 o'clock sharp, a severe thunderstorm started. Last year's Department Boat Trip Party had been postponed and eventually cancelled due to the weather. I saw the thunderstorm and got crabby. (Pun unintended - this year the festivities were scheduled to close out with a seafood dinner featuring crab, as well as lobster, prawns, squid, scallops, fish, and i forget what else. And chicken - for the vegetarians, presumably.)

At 1:45 it stopped thunderstorming. Those of us who were around the department went down to the pier together. We were amongst the last to arrive. The boat was waiting. As usual, it was a two-storey affair, with an air-conditioned cabin downstairs and an open seating area upstairs. I clambered in, pouched two beers from the ice bucket, and went straight to the top.

We sailed off.

Here is a picture of the view as you sail off. The black bit dead center is the pier. The little red circle north-east of it is where I'm sitting typing this. Just so you know.

About half an hour's (or a beer and a half's) worth of sailing brought us to one of the outlying islands. A few other boats like ours were parked there, people were sitting around on the decks, others rowing around in little paddle boats, some were swimming, and some had rowed or swum across to this empty beach about fifty or so meters away and were doing beach things there.

Some of us jumped straight into the water and swam ashore. A few others rowed. A friend and I finished our beers, and then four of us got into the rowboat along with (what most of the world calls) a football. I rowed the boat while a fifth person pushed it from behind, while swimming himself. It took a while to get to the beach - my prior experience with rowboating having been a blemishless record of having dumped all passengers into the sink every time. Thankfully none of the passengers on this boat was married to me, so we all got ashore reasonably unwet. On the beach we set up mini goalposts with sticks on the sand, and started a game of faculty vs. students.

I am happy to report that Ronaldinho scored a hat-trick and we trounced the youngsters 5-2. It might have had something to do with the fact that there were five of us and four of them, but then they were younger and one of us was over fifty.

I have to say it was fun doing the whole shirt routine after scoring, and the Roger Milla item thing wasn't bad either. (So much so that I was made to give a repeat performance for the larger audience when we got back on board.)

We then rowed back to the boat. A couple of guys swam and reached much earlier. The guy who had pushed the boat while going out decided to lock his feet onto a rope and be towed on his back. The guys doing the rowing - hotblooded young graduate students both - were getting distracted by another boat nearby where bikini-clad maidens were rinsing themselves down with a shower-hose after coming out of the water. (It was funny when I said sotto voce "Don't look now but they've taken their clothes off," and both swivelled round instantly.) And so midway I jumped off and swam, and had a momentary fright when I realised I was swimming directly in front of the rowboat and boats don't have brakes.

Once back upstairs, we realised that a major party had broken out in our absence. Several bottles of wine had been opened, and were being sampled. Various conversations were in full swing in parallel. I reclaimed my spot at the front, and proceeded to lay into the wine. There was a long debate about why it is that parties coalesce into subgroups of men talking to men and women talking to women when men normally prefer to talk to women. I'm not sure I agree with any of the generalizations in that statement but I completely concurred with the resolution of the debate -- that we should all apply for a grant to study this phenomenon, our hypothesis being that the answer lay in the consumption of different wines from around the world. Anyway, the wines were good, the company was good, the two babies on board behaved themselves (and their mothers took them downstairs when they stopped.) Eventually, we arrived at the dinner place. I don't recall very many details after that, but the food was good. The guy next to me had a whole stack of crustacean remnants piled up beside him. I fell asleep on the boat coming back.

Man, it must be at least ten years since I touched a football.