Nomological Net

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


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, May 28, 2007

The glass piggy-bank

I consider myself a hard-boiled cynic, but every once in a while a news item comes around that makes me drop my jaw. All day long, as this one has (and it's not even new news, looking now at the dateline).

Let's put it this way: did you know that UCLA has a secret slush fund that it uses to fund preferred faculty? Read this astonishing report:

In 1998, Conney signed a contract with UCLA for a full-time fellowship position, but three years later, the school denied her the promotion and reassigned her as a part-time employee with a significant pay cut. She later learned that similarly situated male coworkers were paid double or more what she earned, and that they were offered promotions that she was told were unavailable.


In addition to the original complains Conney had against the school, it was discovered during court proceedings that her UCLA department had a secret reserve of money that they used to supplement the salaries of male faculty members only.
For those interested in skipping to the happy ending, she ended up scoring 4 million in damages.

My instinct is that any comment is superfluous, save those that would try and argue for the defense. Now, those I'd be interested in hearing. And yeah, I wonder who else round here is getting their pay topped up right now. Anyone? Anyone?

[Link courtesy Bitch, PhD. If you're not familiar with this, IMO it's one of the very best blogs going. YMMV.]

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Alternate realities

The first thing I look for is always where the speakers will go. The living room needs a clear wall facing into a vacant space of a reasonable size. If there's no such wall, or no such space, I'm less interested already. However, to give it the benefit of the doubt, I wait to see if there's an attic or a basement. One house that we were shown had the most wonderful attic. It spanned the length and breadth of the building, and had a lovely soft carpet that would act as perfect sound insulation. The roof wasn't very high, only about seven or eight feet at its highest, but the dimensions of that room made it close to perfect.

That house also had an enormous back yard -- stretching out at least twenty meters to the fence. But the bedrooms were beyond tiny. And so were the doors to the bedrooms. Frankly, it didn't look as if our bed would find sufficient space in any of those rooms, even if it did somehow make it through those doors.

The owner, a professor of art history, suggested putting the bed in the living room -- Roman style. We laughed. We timed the walk to campus from the front door. Half an hour.

We didn't take the house.

But while we were walking, it was interesting to contemplate how it would have been to lounge on my bean bag in that attic, lights low, the room filled with soft warm sound.


At the other extreme were the funky designer loft condos in the heart of the handkerchief sized downtown that we were yearning to find an address in. The first one we walked into was, to my mind, the apotheosis of idiocy. A rectangular space with a large cardboard separation thrown lengthwise through it, at an angle, dividing the space into a corridor on the left and rooms on the right. Overhead no ceiling, just pipes and large tubes. A foot of space between the ceiling and the top of the cardboard 'wall'. Sliding doors built into the wall, marking out little rooms on the right. Approximately 300 square feet of living room at the end of the entry corridor, with kitchen appliances along the left wall. A large square balcony at the end of it all. Two thousand five hundred dollars a month for your troubles.

Could I even see myself in this place? There was a wall for the speakers, all right. I checked to see whether the bathroom had its own ceiling. It did. But the cardboard walls? The weird angle, the waste of space -- just didn't seem right. Walking past the building the next day we saw a couple of people sitting on their balconies on the 2nd and 3rd floors. "Suckers," was my immediate thought.

Yeah, I guess that one was ruled out all right.

For two thousand four hundred I was sorely tempted by this other two-bedroom place we saw. 22nd floor facing two directions, in a town where the second-tallest building is ten storeys high -- the view was *magnificent*. The charming owner of the wonderful b&b we stayed in had been telling us about the local politics. "They want to turn this into Manhattan. Do we really want that?" The speakers went in on the right wall, facing along the wall to wall windows right through into the dining room. It was so very tempting. There was even a desi restaurant at street level right next door -- bring up the kababs and crank the volume up. "Nine-inch concrete walls," the suave building manager assured us, "This is a surprisingly quiet building."

Despite the several hundred apartments, populated by representatives from all over the world, and - really - all ages. In the end, that was what drove us away from this expensive little luxury.


At the other end of the poshness scale was the apartment on the second and third floors of a run-down house that sat at the *perfect* location. The previous inhabitants were in the process of moving out. Looking at their things lying around brought the squalor home even more sharply. How do people live like this? I'd take this place, I thought, but only for the location. There's nice amounts of light coming through the windows on the west side. This one too has a nice attic. But the laundry? Why would one want to choose a place where you have to exit the building and come back in to go to the crummy basement where they keep the washer and dryer? In the winter? Is this worth the proximity to the music clubs, the restaurants, the cool hangout joints?

Or are we too old for that now?


We didn't think we were. We thought we were too young for the rows of houses tidily arranged in boring sequences: First Street, Second Street, Third Street, Fourth Street. We walked the Old West Side till Seventh Street before turning back in certainty. No way. The "market" that had been touted on Fourth Street turned out to be a single hole-in-the-wall kirana shop. "Too neighborhoody", said TPB. "Too quiet."

Exactly the words that had been touted as virtues on listing after advertised listing. Neighborhoody, quiet: good. Studenty: bad. You can't get the excitement without the noise, they said, and no one likes the noise. Put differently -- you can't have a house with big yards in a neighborhood that doesn't have yards -- as my friend said.

But there was something about the little white house with the purple door, and the purple trim on the windows. We really hadn't thought of ourselves as house people. It wasn't the odd-shaped living room -- no place for the speakers there, I thought as I walked in. But the dining room was nice and airy, and the family room at the back was large and lightful, skylights, bright colors. The bedrooms upstairs were small-ish but reasonable. The lady was very nice. The yard at the back wasn't overwhelmingly big. Everything seemed manageable. But I wasn't convinced. I thought I'd hold out for the condo we were seeing the next morning.

The next morning, during breakfast, the agent called to say that condo had been taken.

We traded off our options. I thought of myself sitting in that family room. I pictured how the Wharfedales would look against the bright walls. I wondered where the back speakers would go. I thought about how the stationary bike would go in the front bedroom upstairs, and I could look out onto the street as I cycled. I pictured our round dining table in that room outside the kitchen. I thought about storing the wine in the basement.

We called the lady and said we'd take it.


The little white house with the purple trim. From whose front porch I will pick up my amazon packages and junk mail come August. From where I will walk to work with my poodle. From where I'll go to the Trader Joe's that's "just round the corner" but only if one drives. The one that's a straight half hour walk to downtown but there's a direct bus.

Yes, I can see myself there.

Friday, May 18, 2007

tripti, of sorts

my semester has ended. spent the last two days grading; finished my grading today. left the project reports with the ta. walked home feeling liberated. switched on the england west-indies game, popped open a duvel, relaxed.

spurred on by a chat-buddy, i opened a second.

now i don't feel like packing any more despite the fact i leave for the airport in less than ten hours.

i think the semester ended well. today we hosted a visitor - a man who'd been on my committee. i spent an hour and a bit showing him around and talking to him about my work. it was good. i also finished my grading on a high note. one of the reasons i was SO PISSED OFF yesterday was the grading. it was the straw on the camel's back, really. one of the groups that had two guys right at the top of their section had goofed up BIGTIME on their project report. despite the fact that i'd told them the exact format in which to write their report, despite the fact that i'd told them what was important, despite the fact that i'd posted the template online, these guys had entirely skipped two sections from their report. so they deserved to get zero on these two sections. i gave them a couple of points in each, out of sympathy. that didn't help. the two guys woh had been ranked #s 1 and 2 with only this report left to be accounted for have now slipped to 7 and 10 or something. the A+'s that were theirs for the taking, all their hard work through the duration of the semester, thrown away through carelessness.

i was SO MAD at them.

i told a colleague about it -- he pointed out that since the instructions had been so precise, not penalizing these guys for not following them would be unfair to the rest of the class. "when you work at a job if your boss asks you to do a and you do b, you get fired." very true. i made my mind up to fire these guys if i saw them. they'd never been very warm, but they were smart, they'd be hurt by this.

today was better. i got a few more nice emails from the kids. one of the few projects left to grade was from a group that had all it's members at the top of their section. and although i had high expectations from them i was blown away as i graded their report -- no excuses to cut points anywere but one. they ended up with 99 on 100 -- by far the highest i've ever given. all five of them at the top of the class. i felt a little sad for a girl who'd been in another group -- she would have gotten an A+ had she been in any other section -- but i have to grade on a curve. not fair.

i bumped into three of the guys on my way home. told them the little secret. made their day.

anyway, that's all done now. there's two duvels inside of me, and the storm that passed is now pulling a strong wind inside the apartment. joni sings hejira, she depresses me. eventually i will drag myself up, finish my dinner, transfer the stuff from the bed to the suitcases, decide what to read en route, charge the poodle, count the greenbacks in my travel pouch. the semester's over, it's time to look at the bigger picture again.

i hope the review that's on the editor's desk doesn't come in tonight. if it does, i hope it's a positive. i hope he loves me now.

it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


I thought I'd write a thoughtful, reflective post about the art school fiasco in Baroda. I even thought about what I'd link to, and what I'd say that was possibly different.

I thought I'd write a contemplation on sadness, a tranquil reflection on negative affect. Or perhaps an insightful review of some of Paul Simon's music, and how it ages with time. Or a whimsical piece about grading, or a slapstick account of the end of the semester. But no. It's hot, it's humid, it's been a crappy day, and my head has finally boiled over due to some of the most spectacular service ineptitude I have seen in a while. (No wait, I take that back. I'm flying again on Saturday.)

Suffice it to say that a colleague/collaborator and I ran some research which was being funded by my grant (of which I'm the principal investigator, and he's the co-investigator, but he's PI on another grant). The deal usually is that we pay for the research out of our own pockets and then get refunded by the office that handles this sort of grantwork. (So it's like a gratis loan from us to the government, but that's a rant for another day.)

Anyway, this time, in early March, we decided to pay for it from my grant. Only, when the RA came to pick up the check, I realised my checkbook was out of leaves and the replacement was in the mail. So my buddy picked up the tab, and asked the RA to ensure that the reimbursement went from my grant to his account.

I forgot all about it until a few days ago when he came knocking, asking about the reimbursement. I had no idea. We trotted down to the RA's office. She realised she hadn't understood that the reimbursement was to go to *him* and not me, and so the money had probably been credited to my account. They both turned to look at me. I'm a sook with finances so I slipped off back to my office to take a look. Logged on to my bank account, selected "Last 60 Days" from the balance enquiry, and clicked Submit.

There was no credit to my account during the probable period in March. There were credits to my account in April, but none for the requisite amount. For once I was in the right. I marched back to my colleague's office and told him the finance office must have screwed up. He grumbled about the interest he was losing - on a not inconsiderable sum. We summoned the RA again and asked her to follow up.

The RA told the department secretary - the one who gets everything done. The dept secy emailed the f.o. The f.o. got back saying the amount had been credited to my account on March 30. I logged on to my bank account again. Saw no credit. Went back to the dept. secy. She suggested to go downstairs to the bank. So I did.

At the bank the lady told me she couldn't check any transactions on my account from more than 30 days ago. I told her I could, online. She didn't believe me. Asked me to bring a printout. I went back upstairs. Logged on again. Clicked on "Last 60 days".

And realised that the bloody thing was only showing me transactions that happened after April 1.

I tried it the other way. From the available drag down menus, I selected the earliest available date: March 1, 2007, and the last available date, May 17, 2007. Asked for my statement.

Again, I only saw transactions dating from after April 1.

Who designs these things?


Post script.

The inside of my head hit the ceiling. I walked out of my office and came home. Looked through all the unopened bank statements I have lying on the sideboard and on the desk in the study.

Of course, the only one missing was the one for March.

Friday, May 11, 2007

You go your way and I go mine

I'm coming out the right end of a half dozen pegs of excellent Hrussian woshka so this may not have the usual pizzaz you've come to expect from my dobrovolski. Well, nyetverksy mind. C'est life. Wie komme Ich zum Bahnhof. Da?

I got into an argument over dinner yesterday evening. It was about the nature of altruism. I said I admired this cute little paper written by a researcher I consider God, in which altruism was represented as a negative weight on self-interest. My sophisticatedly combative colleague said that he disagreed with that definition of altruism as altruistic acts were performed because they fulfilled some larger self-interest. e.g., I might end up having less money as a function of having donated fifty bucks, but I feel like a bigger person, so that's not really altruistic of me to have donated.

So I said, oh, okay, what you have is a broader definition of self-interest.

He said no, what you have is a narrower definition of altruism.

I said so what's your definition of altruism?

He said -- altruistic actions involve an overall negative payoff for the agent.

The food arrived so we dropped it right there. But before that, we'd been talking about this East-European exchange student who'd sent out an email announcing a farewell party the next day (i.e., today). We went for her farewell party today. The idea of a party was in itself quite an exception -- never heard of this before. But what really blew us away was the lengths this girl had gone to. There was enough of a spread that twenty-odd people ate and about half the food was left over. More than 70% of the alcohol was left over. She had her national flag up on the wall and music from her country playing. She organized a quiz about her country, and the winners were allowed to choose their prizes. Me and the altruistic guy from the previous evening tied for first; he went first, and given a choice between a doll and a bottle of alcohol he picked up some of her excellent vodka. I went next and got this Georgian wine that she called 'premium'. (My Ukranian friend says this brand was Stalin's favorite.) There was actually so much stuff that everyone got a prize and there was still acres of stuff left over.

I've never heard of something like this before. Our parties are usually more socialist.

On our way back we wondered about the many possible reasons why she did it.

Is *this* altruism?


Postscript - the next morning

I discovered a napkin in the back pocket of my jeans. As I pulled it out I remembered I'd scribbled on it an exchange I'd had during the party:

- So what happened to your drink, man?
-I don't know! [Concerned look] I just poured myself one -- and then I guess I drank it all down.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

5/8/77 -- Happy Anniversary!

It was thirty years ago today!

One may argue about 3/1/69, or 8/27/72, or 2/14/70, or whatever, but scarcely any head will ever deny that THIS was pretty darn close to the best they ever got. For me, this show stands at the pinnacle of human improvisational achievement. This is as good as performance can get.

Here's the link to the show at LMA: Barton Hall, Ithaca, 5/8/77.

And here's an extract of a review posted a few years ago on the GDH list, by someone whose email address includes the phrase "charmed quark":

Oh yeah-there was music, wasn't there? Beautiful, transcendent music, played with an authority that I thought approached arrogance. They knew they were in the zone almost from the beginning, and just kept pushing it further and further throughout the night- an unspoken "So THERE!" hung in the air after the last notes of OMSN faded away...

This show also has some very special personal connections for me. It was the first full show I ever possessed. Rahul (THANKS!) slipped me the tapes when I visited Madras once on work for a couple of days. I took the tapes back to Bombay. A few days later, home early from work, I popped in the second set. The TAKE A STEP BACK! spiel was amusing, but the Scarlet>Fire (my first!) was absolutely transportational -- like nothing I'd ever heard before.

TPB was in the kitchen. I gave her the slip to come have a better listen. The phone rang. It was an international call. The gent at the other end was offering me an all-expenses-paid stint at graduate school -- the stuff of my wildest dreams. I listened, both ears scarcely comprehending, for a few minutes. Then I put the phone down. The fire was raging on the mountain.

I love that riff.


Once in a while you get shown the light
in the strangest of places if you look at it right

Let's all take a minute off to be happy for the good things in our world.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Wedding checks

Like I said, a few days ago I got invited to a wedding. It was A, a French colleague who has his office down the hall, marrying a local Hong Kong woman. He stopped by to give me my invitation and in the heat of the moment ~ communicating my sympathies ~ I omitted to gauge who else from my department he was inviting.

A few days later, I was having lunch with K, a friend from my department. This guy had not only joined the school the same time as A, but they'd also gone to the same grad school and had been friends there. So the talk turned to the wedding and, inevitably, to the question of what to gift. K, not being from Hong Kong, was as unsure as I was. He though that the safe option given that this was a Cantonese wedding (in a sense) was to gift some cash in a "red pocket" (an auspicious red envelope). As he said that, he wondered what an appropriate amount would be. His metric was -- how much would be enough to cover the cost of one head at the hotel where we'd been invited for the banquet?

I recoiled from that calculation. For me, cash is anyway the lowest form of gift. It signals, "Look, I don't care enough to find something appropriate for you, so run along and buy yourself a trinket." And while I know this is technically irrational, it has solid foundations in theory as well as popular appeal. One of the best-received sessions I teach every year is the one on gift-giving, which talks about the various stages of the gift-giving process. First there's the gestation stage, where the giver plans ahead, thinking about their motivations for giving the gift, how much time and effort they should put into it, the nature of the appropriate gift, the "right" value. Then comes the presentation stage, which isn't just about walking up the recipient and tossing the parcel in their faces, but about the ceremony that accompanies the giving, the attention to the recipient, the unwrapping, the surprise, the often too-obvious demonstrations of joy and thankfulness. And it doesn't end there, since there's the reciprocity stage, where the person who was first the recipient now has to become the giver, and the value and nature of the gift and the specialness of the presentation get factored into the complex calculus of the relationship.

So, given all this theoretical knowledge, I can also appreciate how wedding gifts may be different. The process tends to be a lot more formalized, for one. At my wedding, we'd had two receptions, in two cities. My parents had printed an invitation card that said clearly at the bottom, "No gifts please." (Or words to that effect -- it's been a long time.) Despite that explicit injunction, every other person who attended brought a gift-wrapped parcel. The venue had placed a table behind us, and that table was soon overloaded with layers of boxes. Funny was the gentleman, some professional acquaintance of my father's, who walked in empty-handed to congratulate us, excused himself, disappeared for half an hour, and returned with a gift of his own. Funnier was the fact that when we unwrapped the parcels the next day, we found we had something like eight or ten "lemon sets". I'd never heard of these before but as we learned, they were in fashion then. My parents used them as gifts at weddings they went to over the course of the next few years -- presumably as antiques. Funniest was one of the gifts we hadn't opened -- a large flat square box, at least eighteen inches across, with a photograph of a salver on the cover. My in-laws assumed it was silver and decided it needed to be stored away safely. Much much later, a bout of house-cleaning brought that box to light again and the decision was made to open it.

It yielded a cheap aluminium tray loaded with two kilograms of heartily-rotten mithai.

Anyway, so that's one thing about the wedding gift that's different from the normal gift. It's formalized, so a lot of that stuff about relationship bonding and reciprocity doesn't quite hold in the same way. Or else I'd have been waiting for the silver-platter-giver's next invitation. And it leads to all kinds of weird herding behavior -- like the lemon sets we got at that reception, or the six wall-clocks from the other reception. A second way in which wedding gifts are different is that they tend to over-emphasize reciprocity at the cost of bonding. I'm talking about cash. K's idea of gifting an amount commensurate with the per-capita cost of the hotel booking revolted me at first, but then I thought back to what I myself had done at my second reception. The six timely souls who'd gifted us wall-clocks had been in a minority. Here, the culture being different, we'd received *stacks* of envelopes. This was probably the first time I was receiving cash like this (incorruptible me). The whole process had been stylized -- me and TPB on the dais, cascades of relatives rolling up from the left, mumbles of congchulesun, congchulesun, frantic whispers of dive? yes dive! ok dive!, envelope stuffed into my hand, always at waist-level, photographer shouts photo! sighs of relief as orderly line is formed, I pass the envelope behind TPB's back into the outstretched hand of her cousin, who is keeping stock. Round after round after round. And in the evening, after it was all over, I and my new family sat down to keep score. Envelopes were opened. Counts were made. Comments passed. Totals listed and filed away for future reference. I felt like I was looking in at a parallel universe.

A further culture shock, and an even more different look into the world of wedding gifts, came after we moved to the US. Two good friends from grad school were getting married. They sent us the link to their registry. I asked around, discreetly, to convince myself this wasn't a joke. People telling other people not only what they want, but where to get it and how much to pay? Although I didn't know it then, this basically kills of most of the first two stages of the gift-giving process. Now it's not about the giver any more, or about their relationship with the recipient, it's all about convenience. An interesting book I'm reading right now asks quite pertinently -- why don't we just do away with all the reception and registry money sinks and instead get the well-wishers to contribute to a down payment on a house for the couple instead? Further, not only does a wedding registry kill off the romance and force you quantify your love for the couple in a metric that is stark naked to everyone concerned, it also discriminates against the slow-movers! When three of us friends got round to looking at the registry concerned, we found that most everything that had been within reach of our grad student budgets was now gone. Obviously grad students tend to have many friends on grad student budgets. We contemplated getting them one wine glass or pillow cover each (these things get that expensive?!). Ultimately, we pooled our meagre resources and ended up giving a gift that none of us remember.

But maybe that's the way they like it.

But not me.

I can think back to weddings I have attended, and I can remember the gifts I gave and how they were received, and I can look around my house and I can remember who gave us what and how. Ultimately, where my closest friends are concerned, I don't think I'd really have cared whether they gave us any presents or not. Indeed, my wedding invitation said no gifts. But that wasn't a strong enough signal for society, I guess.

I told K that it might be a good idea if he and I pooled our cash contributions and got A a nice gift instead. He readily agreed, then suggested we ask around our department to see who else was invited. I knew B had been, so I asked him and he said yes at one. K found C and she agreed as well. Then we learned D&A were also invited though they may not go, then CA, then AR. The list kept expanding and I kept adding cc's on to the group email that I was trying to co-ordinate. Then at some point one of the new entrants stopped by my office and said -- you know what, I just talked to a good friend who's local, and she said cash in a red pocket would be just fine, so I think I'll go that way.

And with that, the whole gift co-ordination exercise lost all its steam in one get-go.

We all ended up carrying red pockets.

There was a desk outside the reception where they were checking off people's names as they arrived and informing them which table they were seated at.

We all gave our red pockets to the girls at the desk.

Happy marriage, A.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Whiskey Tango Flashbacks

A brief exchange with the Great PanJAPdrum yesterday triggered off a memory of a blog he'd told me about -- Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Check it out at your risk. Looking over the wares there, I realized that I too had a few WTF moments of my own. So here they are, for your viewin pleasure, a trip round the world, with a difference.

We start our eccentric little circuit off with this beauty from NYC's Lower East Side. Wasn't Chinese take-out supposed to be cheap? Or did the proprietors here just partake of an Honest Red Bean Bun?

Next, from sunny Auckland -- how nice to see a sign that practices what it preaches. Setting a standard by example, I say.

Then we have three gems from Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. All three involve interesting conceptual juxtapositions. The first is this logical conjunction of Hotel Full Hua with Soon Fatt. Of course.

Next, stretching it a *little* further, we see this obviously well-meaning instruction. Public health activists, warm your hearts out.

And finally, carrying the WC theme further, here's a radical idea -- co-ed toilets are good for mental health! Hah! Now they tell me.

Coming back down to earth, we find this stern reminder inside a taxi in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Yeah, and don't drink the brown unleaded. Limin'!

Next we travel all the way round the world back home to Hong Kong, land of the free (and 25% off), home of the brave (English-speaker). First with this injunction to take careful aim -- inside one of the largest Chinese products gift emporia in town.

Next is this astonishing concept of a shopping complex cum office building qua blindfold getting a facelift. Works on multiple levels, doesn't it? Feel free to take the elevators on this one.

And just in case you felt you were being short-changed by life, here's a golden opportunity from Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia. See the temples, carv your name and animal on a stamp, how much more fulfilling can life get?

Pretty much, actually, This third Hong Kong beauty comes from a wedding I attended last week. It was a Chinese-French affair, but more than anything else the thing that caught my eye was that the cameraman seemed to have been making do with available technology. Giving the term acid flash a whole new meaning.

Finally, we cap off our flashback tour with this double-whammy at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. Not only does the sign at the top right tell us about "Subway Phast Phood" (if you read the Hindi), there's also one at bottom left that reminds us that our travails are aught but an endangered species and we should be thankful we're not being packed off to Sariska or somewhere.

And so to bed.