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, February 25, 2007

Hyderabad Clues


What did the Muslim thief in Hyderabad say at his trial?
Not Gulti, my Lord


What did the Hyderabadi couple say when the condom broke and they had a baby girl?
Gulti ho gayi

More welcome.

Friday, February 16, 2007

AAP jaisa koi

It was twenty-five (freakin hell!) years ago that Nazia Hassan burst upon the collective consciousness of teeny-bopper ~ speaking from a mental age perspective ~ India. If you have no idea who I'm talking about, or if it's just memory playing tricks again, check out the Nazia Hassan Foundation, or maybe even just Wikipedia. I so clearly remember her smooth, clean, preppy sound, contrast that with the Muqaddar-ka-Sikandar rage of the times, and her smooth, clean, preppy look, contrast that with the Usha Uthup type alternatives available. There was a time when all of us in the school taxi coming home in the afternoon (well, all except the girl who always had to puke -- "Saardaarji ultaa aa raa hah") would happily sing multiple choruses of her chart-toppers together.

Aap Chaisa Khoi Mere
Ssindhaki Mein Aayein

Toh Paat Pun Chaaye-eee

Haan-haan, Paat Pun Chaaye!


Ah the good times :-)

Indeed, together with her brother Zohaib, to my mind they basically were the Happy Carpenters: pop music a young feller could take home to his parents.

But that was a while ago, so it struck me as a little strange that I should wake up humming this tune today. I tried to push it out of my mind, while trying to do Serious Things all morning, and maybe I was even successful at it, but come lunchtime it popped right back. And then I realized what had been going on -- I'd just fallen for a cool little linguistic pun.

To explain, let me digress. The last couple of weeks, I've gotten fixated on the roast duck that's available at the Cantonese restaurant downstairs. Cantonese roast duck may be inferior to Peking Duck, but that's like saying only the Bee Gees can do the shiny strobes. If you're a disco deewana, hey, Nazia floats your boat like a hurricane. But that's besides the point of the digression. So - basically - almost every lunch recently has consisted of roast duck (plus a heaping of steamed green leafy, soup, rice, sau mei cha, and hot red bean soup for dessert -- all for 6 dollars US, eat your quack out). And given this repeated interaction with such ducculence, I decided that I should actually learn to order it for myself instead of pointing at the menu and looking hopefully at the server.

My experience with functional Cantonese has been very very mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, I've learned to communicate with taxi drivers so well that it's almost like a party trick for me. It's a standard sequence now. 1. Take guest who's visiting from outside Hong Kong (last week was a friend from NYC). 2. Insert guest in back seat of taxi, next to self. 3. Instruct driver on nearby destination (usually happens too fast for guest to react). 4. Start conversation in English / Hindi with guest, airily pointing out scenic spots as we drive. 5. Prepare self when destination approaches. 6. At critical moment, abruptly interrupt conversation with guest, lean forward, and rapidfire instruct driver to "stop the cab, please, up ahead to the right - yes thank you very much." 7. Observe stunned reaction from guest. 8. File away.

On the other hand, that's about the only high spot. I've gotten so good at telling the cabbie where home is that the cabbie often turns around and in machine-gun Cantonese spurts something like (this is pure conjecture on my part): "Oh, so you want to go to the University, eh? Okay, you want me to take the long route or go through the city? There's a lot of traffic if we go the shorter way. Anyway, your call -- so which will it be?" At which I gulp and mumble, "Um, no speaking, no speaking, effendi."

Then there was the calamity of the iced coffee. The cafeteria (the other lunch option) offers a drink with lunch. You get to choose. My first month in HK, I would always choose an iced coffee. The girl behind the counter became a friend of mine, and she taught me to say, "I'd like an iced coffee, please, with a little bit of fresh milk." ("Fresh milk" being what they call milk here -- if you don't specify the "little bit" - seeeu-seeu - and the "fresh", you get half a glassful of condensed.) Anyway, so I thought I'd become pretty cool at the beverage stunt. Then I went back to NY, and met this guy in my old department who's from HK. He asked me - with an edge of a challenge in his tone - so, learned any Cantonese yet? And I said, sure! and reeled off my pet line. And he stood frozen, and stared at me with a glassy eye, quizzical-like, as if not quite sure whether I was joking, or merely kinky.

So I swallowed, and said -- okay, let me have it -- what did I just say?

And he said -- you said -- could I please have some iced coffee with a married woman?

Ever since then, I've tried to stay away from conversation except when absolutely sure there would be no misinterpretation. But the duck, it got me thinking. So first I asked a friend from the mainland -- what's "duck" in Mandarin? (Mandarin duck ha ha.) He said -- "YAAA-tzzzz".

YAAA-tzzz, I repeated.

The 'tzzz' doesn't really mean anything, he offered helpfully.

I filed that away for future reference -- in case I ever needed to say something meaningless in Mandarin. Such as maybe if I find myself at a kitty party in Beijing, or with some investment bankers. Option put call footsie Nikkei tzzz.

But the YAAA-tzzz seemed manageable to me. So I took the next step. Saturday I took a grad student out for lunch. Ordered duck (heh heh). And in the most off-hand, nonchalant manner I could summon, I asked her -- so what's Cantonese for duck?

AAP, she said.

When I was quite sure that that was what she'd said, the first thought I had was that's onomatopoeic. I'm a big etymology buff. I went home and practised saying it in private. You have to say it loudly, with a dropping tone, to get it exactly right -- or run the risk of having the waiter deliver a roasted married woman to your table. Not something one can go about freely doing in public. A few days later, heart in hand, I tested my newfound skill out at the restaurant.

I pointed at the menu.

AAP? I said. The moment I said it, I knew I got it wrong. The question mark at the end, to a sensitive ear (!Kobile, anyone?), would send the tone skyward -- and who knows what I'd just asked for. But the lady was nice. She knew who I was. She helped out.


Hmm. Might that be roast duck? A decent working hypothesis, to be sure. "Siu." Different from the "seeeu" that went with the fresh milk. Maybe the one means fresh (it does), while the other means roast? Hah -- having cracked that one, I tested it out today. I summoned the waitress. I ordered spinach first (just to warm up). "BOH-choy." That went well, but it was an old reliable in my armory. Having said that, I sprung my biggie.


"Ahhhh, Siu-AAP-aah? Okay, okay, thangyewhh."

My blood was flowing. I had my meal by the jugular. I went for the kill. "Yut-goh FAAN-aah, mgoi!"

Her eyes widened. What was this she was hearing? I'd just ordered a bowl of rice as well, all by myself. A huge beam broke out over her face. "Ah, okay, okay-aah," she said, like a young teenager suddenly face to face with Nazia Hassan. And a song broke out in my heart:

Haan-haan, Paat Pun Chaaye!!

That's when I knew where *that* came from!


In general, I've found in many places around the world, that if people see you - as an outsider - trying hard to speak their language, and mucking it up ever so slightly in the process, they will love you for it. One of the sweetest smiles I ever got was from this girl behind the sandwich counter at the Eurostar station in supposedly-rude Paris, when I tried to ask her to add a few extras on my sandwich -- just enough to use up all the francs I was carrying. One of my wildest airport experiences was being caught up in a long and personal conversation in fractured Gujarati (fractured from my end, Gujarati from his) with a septuagenerian named Patel, passport-checker at Newark Liberty International, while about a hundred people waited in the queue behind wondering why this guy was slapping me on my back so enthusiastically (I'd told him I've visited Ahmedabad, and that I have a PhD).

Come to think of it, carrying the original pun further, "aap" in Gujarati means "give". There's nothing like giving, says Nazia Hassan. There's no one like you, respectfully, says the person with the smile. And there's nothing like roast duck.


And with that, here's the last thought for the day. Almost half the year round, someone, somewhere, is having a happy new year. Think about it -- Gujjus in Oct-Nov, Caucasians in Dec-Jan, Bongs in March-April. Right now in Feb-March it's my employers, and I take the opportunity to go underground to a place I hope is really cool for the next few days. I hope to have an interesting update for y'all when I return. Then again somewhere along the line this blog turned a year old, and it's also time to give it a little breather, so till then, quack quack.

And Pwooo!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fiction leading reality, by half a hot scalpel

There's a classic episode of Yes Minister featuring a hospital with no doctors. Here's an extract from the screenplay of that episode, followed for contrast by an email that I received recently:


Bernard explained that at this hospital there are only 342 administrative staff. The other 170 are porters, cleaners, laundry workers, gardners, cooks, and so forth. This seemed a perfectly reasonable figure. So I asked how many medical staff.

"Oh, none of them,' replied Bernard casually, as if that were perfectly obvious in any case.

"We are talking about St. Edward's Hospital, aren't, we, Bernard?'

"Oh yes,' he answered cheerfully. "It's brand new, you see,' he added as if that explained everything.

"How new?'

"Well,' he said, "it was completed eight months ago, and fully staffed, but unfortunately there were government cutbacks at that time and there was, consequently, no money left for the medical services.'


Dear Tabula Rasa ,
Now University is working hard on the control of A/C operation, the general allowed A/C time for office is from 08:00-23:00 for Mon-Sat. So we have to review every request that the A/C extension is requested. As instructed from our Dept Director, staff are recommended to use the office ( with A/C ) from the above stated time, and special or occasional long A/C time shall be entertained upon individual ad-hoc request. So we can only maintain to 08:00-23:00 for Mon-Sat for your office, and we always ready to discuss with you for the reason on your request for A/C in your office after 23:00, or you can send ad-hoc request for occasional over time work.
Please raise your view when you still in need.


It's oddly comforting, in a time when conditions in the US and A are drifting towards those described in 1984, to know that China is instead following the path first revealed by Messers Lynn and Jay.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stop that train

It's something that I'd never expected, always surprises me, haven't yet been able to understand, and am not sure will ever be able to explain: how physically tiring the act of teaching is. It dumbfounds and nonplusses me. It's not as if it isn't enjoyable -- on the first day of class I tell the students that I'll make the class fun for them if they make it fun for me; we strike a deal; and till date I've had a great time every year every single time. The ratings are fantastic, the feedback is highly flattering, they appear to learn a lot of the material, and all in all everyone has a good time.

Except for the fact that come evening, on a teaching day, I find myself
E M P T Y .

No other word for it.

And yet I never learn. I plan things to do after dinner. I think -- a couple of hours to come down, a drink to relax with, a shower, and I'll be fine to work on that project. Or maybe I'll review this other paper. Or put down a few thoughts on how to progress on this thing that's been stuck. Or design the outline of an experiment. Or comment on that grad student's idea. Or email that other friend with whom I'd discussed that other cool idea back in October. So many fronts to push forward on -- once the teaching is done for the day.

And today was no different, either. The morning went in prepping and priming. Class at 2. Three sections back to back -- went off as well as possible. Finished right on time each time, covered everything thoroughly, the in-class exercise went off perfectly, had them eating out of my hand with the moral of the story. I was buzzing when I walked out of the room at 6:30. Bounced down to the bay-side bar for a sweet little tipple. Sat by the railing, stretched the old legs, inhaled a soothing scotch as dusk settled over the distant fishing boats.

Thought calming, philosophical thoughts.

Strolled homewards. En route, less than two minutes later, crossing the road in front of my apartment, I felt it hit me. The life force suddenly ebbed out; my steps abruptly slowed, I had to lift my heavy feet one - by one - by one.

Once inside, I collapsed on my bed. Lay senseless for a few minutes, then rose, changed. Didn't have the strength to eat yet, although the cook had left food piping hot on the kitchen counter. For over an hour dinner cooled while I watched a rerun of some early-80s Ashes Test with the sound off. Finally, I got myself to move my ass and heat the cold dinner. Ate. The Ashes had ended, now it was a rerun of a 90s one-dayer from Sharjah. India beat Pakistan. So I watched. Azharuddin hit three sixes. Venkatesh Prasad has a funny accent. Then I remembered my dreamland wishlist of things to do, fairytales painted on a long-ago morning less than twelve hours ago. Fire under butt, turn the TV off, start moving. Thought about working. New email from grad student - list of thoughts for tomorrow's meeting. Crikey, I hadn't even remembered tomorrow's meeting. So much for my thought of pushing tonight's schedule to tomorrow. Somehow, the brain was functioning (if at all) orthogonal to the body. My legs felt like lead. How did it get to be eleven already? I found myself sliding an Ozu into the player. A Story of Floating Weeds. Turned out to be a silent film. Of course, I had known that. Ten minutes in, I realized I was tuning out between captions. Popped the disk back out. Needed succour.

Popped in the JGB, Live at Shoreline. Desperate situations, etc. etc. Finally, something penetrated.
Stop that train: I'm leavin
Stop that train: I'm leavin.
And it won't be too long whether I'm right or wrong;
I said, won't be too long whether I'm right or wrong.
Bob Marley for saint, please. Now.

And here's a String Cheese Incident cover (mp3 stream)
2/16/2002 (full show).

Stop that train, I'm getting off.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Farinelli, il pastichio

Earlier this week, I picked up this DVD from the library on impulse. I'm not sure why I did that, since I'm no fan of opera, and haven't in fact liked listening to any since about twenty years ago, when, buoyed by a few plays of a cassette we had, I'd toyed with the idea of having a crush on either Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland. For vocal calisthenics I much prefer Hindustani classical, I get my fix of facial contortions in the shaving mirror of a morning, and melodrama I can usually do without. So I'm not sure why I brought this home.

But having brought it, I stuck it into the rig night before. I watched half that evening, and the remaining half yesterday night. It wasn't the greatest film ever -- an average 18th century musical biopic (if one might compute such a measure for that rather restricted population). Think Amadeus without the charm or the laugh, but with sultry Italian good looks and - yes - melodrama. Threesomes, public suicide attempts during a solar eclipse, paraplegic children with the wisdom of youth, juvenile suicide, and, of course, childhood castration.

For Farinelli was a real person. A castrato. Someone who was deprived of his family jewels at an early age, in order to preserve and perfect a precociously gifted singing voice. Apparently, castrati had the most amazing singing voices ever -- way better than anything any modern singer can achieve. (Don't ask me, ask wikipedia.) The practice of castration for purposes of opera was banned in the late 19th century, so no one alive has really heard a castrato perform at their peak. The wikipedia link has a little piece of one of the few audio recordings by Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato ever known to have recorded. It's not a very great piece of music, but then there's a controversy about whether Moreschi was one of the not-so-good castrati, or whether he was, but past his prime at the time of recording. Either way, that clip is interesting in that it sounds like no middle-aged man that you're likely to meet.
Anyway, back to the movie. So castrati in general had amazing voices that no living human can reproduce (pun unintended but ha ha anyway). Granted some sopranos (soprani?) do perform parts written for castrati (I remember another tape I used to have, of Kathleen Battle with *blush* Wynton Marsalis), but apparently they achieve nowhere near the intended effect. Googling Farinelli led me to this link, which has this to say:

Castrati were virtuoso musicians, exceptionally talented and trained. Almost nothing in their repertoire can be performed nowadays. Castrati were particularly known for their unique timbre: because of the surgery performed on them, their voice did not change with puberty. Upon adulthood, the size of their thoracic cage, their lung capacity, their physical stamina and their strength were usually above that of most men. They had, as a consequence, great vocal power, and some were able to sing notes for a minute or more. Finally, a small and flexible larynx, and relatively short vocal chords allowed them to vocalize over a rather wide range (over 3 and 1/2 octaves) and to sing with great agility (they could control wide intervals, long cascades and trills). Furthermore, castrati were initially selected among the best singers and received intensive training.
So then, how did the makers of this film approximate the voice of Farinelli? This is definitely the most fascinating part of the story for me.

To better identify this lost voice and to define its characteristics, we have taken into account the physical traits of the organs involved in voice production in a castrato, ... and of descriptions of the singing found in written accounts.
We have attempted several approaches, starting from a bass, a tenor, an alto, a countertenor and a coloratura soprano. Because of the very wide vocal range, we have decided to use both a countertenor (Derek Lee Ragin) and a coloratura (Ewa Godlewska) who used similar singing techniques (especially with respect to vibrato and articulation).
After the selection of the singers, the processing took place in two stages. The first ... tried to recreate the melodic line of the castrato voice based on recordings of the two singers. This was done by splicing the parts which could only be sung by the countertenor with those specific to the soprano. This subtle editing work was sometimes done note by note.
The second stage ... was to blend the timbre of the two voices. A timbre close to that of the countertenor, itself quite characteristic, was chosen as reference. This voice was nevertheless processed to give it a younger quality, in particular removing certain noisy aspects. The voice of the soprano was then modified more dramatically by transforming it toward that of the countertenor. Additional processing was required to produce certain effects such as very long notes which could not be sustained by today's singers. These notes were wholly synthesized with elements sampled from other parts of the sung material.
So as to better understand the type of transformation that was applied, an analogy with image processing may be useful... Morphing is a gradual transformation from one scene into the other by continuously changing the shape, texture and outline of each fundamental element of the face. Likewise, we go from one voice to the other by gradually altering the characteristics of one voice into those of the other voice.

Wow. Reading about the technical wizardry here took my breath away -- primarily because I hadn't ever thought of it before (and come to think of it, I did sit through the entire film, singing and all). And second, think of the delicious irony of the situation. Castrati, neither fully man nor woman, are now recreated as a blend, an apotheosis, of man and woman! How much more wonderful can irony get?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Happy Kumar

Barely a week after reminiscing about my phantom-bridge partner, I get emailed an update on his activities. Evidently the man is an investment banker no more (although I wouldn't say that he's quite returned to the Shakespearean path... yet).

The funny thing is I didn't recognize him even after getting a hint. But then he always looked different without those little round glasses.

Anyway, good to see he's happy (and no, please don't cue any joke about the seven dwarfs).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

It's just not right

An antacid should be berry flavored. Not citrus flavored.

Only vitamin C tablets are allowed to be citrus flavored.

Am I the only one who gives a fuck about the rules?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Expected Value = N * p

Submitted another paper today.

Keep pushing away at that N.