Nomological Net

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


faults in the clouds of delusion

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Flying back in the plane tilts and I look down to the ground. It is all shades of dull yellow, brown, and red. Punctuated by the green of the golf course we're passing. I remember the filters they used on O Brother, to give it the scorched look it had. I think of the hills of south California and how they may be clothed in similar colors as well.

This evening I sat in the back yard and looked up at the sky through the trees. The leaves on the left were yellow; those on the right still green. A rainbow arched through them and a passing jet intersected it making a Venn diagram in the sky. I remembered the leaves from yesterday.

I felt tired, but satisfied. Last year I'd been as exhausted, but the feedback this year, although less hyperbolic, came from people whose opinions matter to me, people I'd never imagined would say the things they did. That felt good, still does, and will for some time. But then last year's truism is dated no less: You overcommit, others underdeliver, people politic, backstab, snipe, gossip, and your true friends are the ones who are there when the chips are down, the ones who make you such that there will come a time when you won't need them even though you want to, which is why you will.

I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green
Turned to brown

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


A random irrelevant remark on a recent review I got led me to a 1991 review article on the nature of motivations for helping behaviors. From a work point of view the article was dealt with quite easily, but the questions it raises are sticking with me. The basic question is -- why do people help others? The two competing positions are -- egoism and altruism.

The egoism camp says (simplifying greatly), people help because it benefits them in some way, the simplest being that helping makes them feel good about themselves. The altruism camp goes no, it isn't that simple, people help because they feel empathy towards others. From the little I have chased the thread, it seems that the debate is still open. Rather, they seem to be converging to the opinion that most of helping is due to egoism, with a small but significant part being explained by altruism. Without going into the literature in more depth than I have the time (or inclination) for, really, the question that I'm left with is - which is it that causes *us* (not people in general, us, me) to help someone else?

When someone pops up on messenger and asks - "got a minute?" what makes us stop and say okay? Is it empathy? Is it a boost to the self-concept? Or is it a simple expectation of reciprocity? What, at other times, makes us say no I'm busy?

Are these the same things that make us sit down and write out checks to United Way and CRY? What determines what numbers we put on those checks? Egoism?

What makes some people more likely to help others and other people less so?

Thorny, thorny. No answers this time, but a previous post on altruism here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Comfort Zone

Go See Live Music!

I had never heard of James Cotton till recently. The man plays blues harp - he's blown with Muddy Waters, that's some pedigree. I'm glad I went to see him last week.

He is fronted by an incredibly tight band. The standout was Slam Allen on lead guitar, big, with a meaty, toothy grin that hid a feel and verve that reminded me of T-Bone Walker. Solo after solo brought the intimate crowd to its feet. The astonishing part was that he's only 28. The bassist rolled with the best, laying on slap-happy fills to complement the winks he distributed amongst the girls in the front row. The introspective left-handed rhythm guitarist pulled out some scorching solos of his own, reminiscent of Stevie Ray, laced with slide lines that channeled the Dickey Betts of old.

The four piece band played half an hour that heated the house to capacity, then, in true WWF style, Slam Allen announced SuperHarp, Jaaaaaaaames Cotton! And the old man blazed in on a high note, blowing the wings down as he ambled out with his harp and settled into the empty chair out front. Shaped like a walrus, with eyes that looked out sideways through tiny slits, he gripped the harp and a microphone in his left hand, leaning back on his chair, propelling blasts and moans and slurs through the room, looking back at his band, slapping vibratos with the free right hand. Note after note, song after song, they nailed them all. From Sweet Home Chicago to Got My Mojo Working, two sets of frantic, crazy, breathtaking, sweet, awesome, painful, beautiful blues was wreaked on a loving audience. "Testify, brother!" said the man from the back of the room. I couldn't have put it better. Yelling, screaming my acknowledgment, jerking regularly out of my front row seat to, yes, clap between movements, I was glad to be there, honored to be able to shake the great man's hand at the end. It didn't quite beat the time BB King looked at me, but heck yeah - I touched greatness the other night.


A few days later I went to one of the opening acts at the local avant garde jazz festival. This shall remain unnamed. About a hundred people crammed into an L-shaped room. The musicians, a saxophone, a cello, and a koto, a big Japanese zither. Now, I have heard Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, so I had a little context for this. But this was my first time attending one of these things, and too bad for me, I did not enjoy it. I certainly did not "get" it. The saxophone blew irregular staccato blasts while the cello droned frantic anxious saccades beneath. The koto plucked, irregularly. A few members of the audience were enthralled. I was most entertained by the old gentleman to my right, who closed his eyes and shook his head in ecstasy -- while trying to keep time with his right hand. The performance was probably best described by the glimpse we caught of the cellist's music sheet as we left -- it was a single sheet of paper divided into large grids, each grid containing a single symbol. Most of the symbols meant nothing to us - they were certainly not standard musical notation. But the one we did recognize was the one repeated most often: it was simply "~X".

The second night at the festival was much more accessible. I had heard of Vijay Iyer several times but had never either seen nor heard him. Vijay Iyer, for the last two years running, has been anointed DownBeat's musician of the year -- that's no small feat. This time he was playing with the Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet. Rudresh Mahanthappa, another Indian-American, looks like a hip Ganesha without the nose. He plays alto sax with skill and gusto and is not inclined to hold back on the wit. The quartet played truly wonderfully - all technical excellence and interplay, pushing the kind of post-hard bop envelope that Hancock and Shorter have come to call their own. Rousing choruses, in-jokes, counterplay, time-bending comping, they had it all. As the finished in a triumphant explosion, the house rose in delight. Iyer emerged from behind the piano, blinking, a little embarrassed. Mahanthappa cracked a few more jokes. We emerged into the night air.

It was a good week for music.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Last week ended on an eventful note. Friday, within a few hours of waking, I had descended the stairs in unconventional polyrhythmic manner and submitted a paper as well as eaten Korean food at a diner-style bar counter, but the crowning experience was a talk given by an eighty-year old lady. Maya Angelou stole my heart with her character, wisdom, ready wit and lust for life. And so, for the first time on this blog, here is some poetry that doesn't have a tune to go with it.


The Health-Food Diner

No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).

Not thick brown rice and rice pilau
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I'm dreaming of a roast).

Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).

No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run


Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).

Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.

-- Maya Angelou


Thursday, October 11, 2007

How to fly the desi jhanda in four easy steps

1. Sunday - Pass the driving test. Take a wrong turn while cycling to the test venue, find self in the wilderness near a freeway, end up cycling over an hour up hill and down dale in 85 degree heat to get to venue. Pass test anyway, get complimented by tester on perfect parallel park, shake neck violently left and right while changing lanes just to be on the safe side.

2. Monday - Get the driving license. Change two buses to get to lair of bureaucracy, queue up, fill forms, get photographed, walk out with a piece of paper since the plastic one will take two weeks to turn up in the mail.

3. Tuesday - Get insured. Forget that cycle is out for servicing, end up walking half an hour to insurance office, display piece of paper, get other pieces of paper, walk back.

4. Wednesday - Get back to lair of bureaucracy with title deed of car to be bought. Brandish multiple pieces of paper. Walk out as proud owner of new personalized license plate. OK TATA.

Celebrate with local brew called Scotch Bastard over lunch.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


So I was interviewing freshmen who'd applied to work as assistants on this research project of mine. It's about emotions. The first person to show up was a thin reedy ABCD math geek with eyes pointing in different directions -- superbright, superintelligent, but hadn't read the project description. The next one was a typical slacker sort, slumped all over the chair, vacant eyes, backpack thrown at his feet. Two in a week - I was considering delisting the project - then a third applicant emailed. Turned out to be a small bouncy African-American girl, big smile, wide-eyed. I launched into my brief spiel and to my very pleasant surprise she seemed absolutely transfixed by what I was saying. So I stopped to let her respond. Her words:

"Oh my God! I was just thinking as you talked, this sounds SO INTERESTING it sounds JUST like something I saw on Oprah!"


I told her that I thought it was cool that she thought it was cool, because there's no point doing research once you stop thinking it's cool. She accepted the offer on the spot.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

free burma

Free Burma!

once more...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Johnny D's Poodle Factory

Garaj Mahal live, September 26, 2007
(Start at track 2, Poodle Factory; track 1 is just tuning.)

The last time I saw Garaj was in March 2004 in New York City. That was an epic show -- I went with three others -- an immensely gifted hairline-challenged pianist who claimed to have played with John McLaughlin, a childhood friend who was in the middle of post-doctoral work in an area related to artificial intelligence (and is now baby-sitting lemurs in Madagascar), and the former-blogger known as Wildflower Seed. I remember having four martinis over the course of the evening. The show was massive, pun intended. I also remember desperately wishing for a poodle factory. They did play it, as an encore. By that time I'm told I was slumped against the wall, pianist-man sitting by me, on guard. Then, on the way back, came the sher that we all remember (and now that WFS's old blog is down, I can guiltlessly repeat it here).

door se dekha, baingan aa raha tha
door se dekha, baingan aa raha tha
paas aa kar dekha, to headbanger aa raha tha

It was funny then, too. Funnier was after getting home, Mr. Lemur introduced us to this spaced out game that made no sense unless you were really far gone. And we were. Because *after* that came the episode of the four hour bathroom incarceration about which if I write more I'll have to do a BM-cum-WFS-cum-every other vanishing act known to man.

But I digress.

The point of this ramble is to tell you that I, finally after three and a half decades, saw Garaj again. Yes, at Johnny D's. To my despair Kai Eckhardt the second-greatest living bassist was absent. In his place they featured Jonathan Herrera, editor of a magazine for bassists. You can see the two of them play a lovely lilting duet here. And you will realize why I told my companion for the evening why, although the show was smashing, it would have been even better if Kai had been there. He just, sort of, holds the room together, you know?

Ah yes, my companion for the evening. Definitely more low key than the pianist and the monkey-man, but highly personable, for sure. The Drugged Turtle, as I shall now refer to him. You can see a snapshot of the top of his beverage in the picture below. That's Alan "Giga" Hertz in the background. He keeps time like the custodian of the cesium clock. And Eric Levy? That man has soul pouring out of his fingertips. What timing! And of course good old Fareed - sporting a rakish new goatee. He was on as well, right from the manic poodle factory that started the set (track 2 above, what, you haven't heard it yet?)

They played an hour and a half, only one set and a Celtic Indian for the encore. We cleared the tables from the front of the stage and a couple of guys in the audience expressed themselves to the fullest. Garaj Mahal -- what a band.