Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Brrrrg. Today was my completely clear day (nothing on schedule) of the week. Had all this stuff to do--grant apps, a memo to write, a flight to Beijing once I get the aforementioned out of the way.... and instead of working on those things, I just spent all day somewhat hazy and grazing on potato chips. Don't know why I'm such a slacker.

Oh well. Anyway, I just bought more plane tickets for the summer, paid off a parking ticket, and bought a gift for a friend and some running shoes (haven't had a new pair of running shoes since 2002). Lots of money spent. Must get to work on grant apps so I will have money to pay for these things. Sigh.

Well, at least I get to go to Beijing soon. I can't wait. It's going to be terrific. Got some tickets to see some concert. I don't even remember what concert, I don't really care.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Today I was sitting in an anthropology class, and everyone on one side of the room had some kind of accent. Some were British, some fake British, some Chinese, others were some kind of slight European lilt. When I was in college, I used to wonder why graduate students seemed so intentionally exotic, with funny accents, wearing unique shoes and some combination like hippie-chic-with-long-flowing-hair or jacket-with-cordoruy-elbow-patches.

Anyway, I was talking to someone about this yesterday and they pointed out that while people in my department don't dress too conspicuously, girls in gender and women's studies and latin american studies do have a pretty coherent look--and maybe it was because they had more women than men in those departments, and women tend to take fashion cues from each other while men probably don't.

But that still doesn't explain the accents.

Well, I guess maybe the accent's not really a choice; maybe it's just from not being from around here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


I wonder what people did to procrastinate while they worked on computers before the Internet. Maybe they subscribed to more magazines.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Letting it be

One of my friends has been on this kick where she tries to be conscientious of taking the people in her life for who they want to be in her life, rather than for what role she wants them to play in her own narrative of her life. I guess this means being okay with gray areas in relationships with people, and being okay with people whose roles in your life can't fit into conventional categories.

People and friendships and feelings are fluid and changing, so it may be that you can never naturally pin down somebody in your life and assign them a static role, like New Best Friend or Person Who Will Save Me On White Horse In Shining Armor, without a lot of work, some forgiveness of shortcomings, and possible disappointment.

Another of my friends is very practical about her life. She sees marriage as a moral commitment that may not be easy or natural, but is necessary for one to be functional person, worker, mother and friend. She keeps pretty strict boundaries of her life: these are my friends, this is my family, what is detrimental to either must go. She doesn't spend much time thinking about the more gray-tinged feelings people can have towards others--jealousy, guilt, a fuzzy and approximate sense of morality. On the other hand, I know someone else who seems to revel in the blurry boundaries and contradictory categories in his life. He finds jealousy and guilt and the relativity of morality completely intriguing, and sees the messiness of people's relationships with each other as human and thus more interesting than repressed politeness and clean categories of conventions.

I guess everyone just finds out for themselves how they feel about these things. But either way, it's true that it's hard to fit imperfect, changing things like people, friendships and relationships into perfect, static categories. At the same time, people and relationships are kind of the core of things--I don't think anything matters unless you have people to share things with. So it's kind of a hard thing, sometimes, trying to figure out how you want to structure your social life, what kind of commitments you want to make in your life.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Xanga, cleaning and reputations

I wonder why so many asian people use xanga. I guess a lot of people on xanga post personal photos and links to friends, so it's sort of more like using facebook or asian avenue or something. But still, lots of asian people use xanga, and I dunno why.

Just finished a cleaning marathon for the day. Now that I'm not in high school anymore, with my mom telling me to make my bed and sisters making their beds first and then looking at me disapprovingly, cleaning, cooking and washing dishes have become really fun and fulfilling. You can read and write forever and still not be done with your work. But once you're done cleaning, things are clean and look good. Since I spend most of my time sitting at my computer working at home, washing dishes is really fun. Soap suds and hot water everywhere, then shininess.

I just read this article in the New Yorker from half a year ago about the Russian mathematician who solved Poincare's conjecture, then turned down the Fields medal and left the math profession because he could no longer do math for the love of the game. Then, there was this very famous Chinese mathematician who had made his name early in his career with another theorem, then continued prolifically publishing smaller papers of lesser substance. Right after the Russian guy came out with his Poincare proof, the Chinese guy published another paper on Poincare, claiming the Russian guy's proof was unclear, and furthermore had a substantial hole in it (there wasn't), then reworked it with an alternative version of the original proof.

A friend of mine told me he thought that story pretty accurately mirrored the kinds of politicking that went on in his own department. A lot of my friends not in academia tell me they think it's strange that reputation counts for so much in academia. I read this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a long time ago, once, which described the mentoring system in academia as a pyramid scheme. You're always looking to impress superiors so they'll write you recommendations and spread your reputation, and you pay back your debts later by writing a tons of recommendations and trying to talk up your own students. Reputation becomes this thing with a will of its own, sometimes so disconnected to your actual work that it's totally determined by the people who know you. But still, everyone's reasonable and smart, and I still think if you read someone's work and it doesn't match their reputation, you'll come to your own conclusions.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

He's so quirky

Sometimes there are faddish psychological conditions that get all over the public consciousness at certain times for various reasons. Ten years ago everyone left and right was being diagnosed with ADD and taking Ritalin. More recently it seemed like maybe there was an OCD craze going on. There was Monk, that Emmy winning tv show, and this good book about another OCD detective solving crimes.

Every time these fads go around, the less serious tics and obsessions of these conditions become secret portholes that allow their sufferers to see things in the world others can't. Nowadays everyone is ADD because of the internet. Detectives solve crimes thanks to their OCD-fueled attention to detail. Sometimes now I think maybe having a couple OCD quirks would make me a more interesting person, or maybe make me better at my job or something. I bet, though, real sufferers of these conditions are pretty annoyed by stuff like this. Tourette's is really isolating, and spending every other moment trying to quell some overwhelming urge to count orange cones while driving must be terrible. Plus, what makes these conditions innocent and interesting, and other debilitative conditions like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's not interesting at all? I guess the latter are degenerative, which is not funny at all. But ADD an OCD can be just as tragic in their more extreme forms.

I just saw this episode of Scrubs where Michael J. Fox plays an OCD surgeon whose tics seem charming until the end scene, where he's screaming at himself, not able to get himself to stop washing his hands and go home at the end of the day. It was pretty weird watching a real-life Parkinson's sufferer playing cute OCD, then playing the other, real side of having a debilitative psychological condition.

Bball and Chinese pop

Tonight my parents are watching Center Stage, this talent variety show on CCTV (they get it free with some basic cable) which features some mediocre dancing, sometimes good singing, and some interesting fusions of minority cultures and belly-baring pop. Chinese pop is usually this kind of mix of shaky dancing and sometimes good singing.

I think the kind of dancing that goes along with pop music goes over in China just like basketball does. It's a western form, and so of course it's not done as well as it is in the U.S. A friend used to always point out to me that Yao Ming is considered mediocre in the NBA, so it was weird that Chinese-Americans were so crazy about Yao Ming. To which I say: if you find me an American who can even come halfway close to Jet Li's gongfu, I'm totally willing to get excited about him too. Basketball is just as foreign and exotic to Chinese people as gongfu is to Americans; and mastering it when everything you've done in the past is totally formally different is pretty tough.

A lot of people write off the fact that most Chinese bballers are not as good as Americans as due to the height difference between Chinese people and American people. But a friend of mine in China was explaining to me once that he thought the problem wasn't height; it was the kind of competitive training that you get playing on American high school teams, and the rewarding of coordination among teammates that American coaches practice. I guess this just means that in America, the culture of basketball is so ubiquitous that in high school you always have many other pretty good local teams you compete against, or pretty good friends and neighbors you can pick up a street game against. You have that in China too, but people generally aren't as good. Then the real big factor is that coaches train players to work together collaboratively. In China, you're more likely to learn more from tv than from coaches; and on tv, you see a lot of lone superstar players celebrated for ostentatious skills and big jump shots. So less collaborative teamwork among Chinese players.

I dunno anything about basketball. But still, Chinese pop may be derivative, but then, so is western gongfu and taichi. Plus I can't think of any white pingpong players at all. So I still like Chinese pop.

My friend was telling me about this Taiwanese rapper, MC Hotdog, who raps about typical things Taiwanese teenagers deal with. He raps about his parents who make him study for the college entrance exams even after he gets home from cram school, about his friends who are all too busy studying to chill with him, about girls, about worrying about college entrance exams. I think even Jay Chou has a song where he laments not getting the girl, then the next immediate line is about not getting into a good college. Pretty nice. Pretty accurate.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell on Enron

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in the latest New Yorker on the Enron incident, in which he draws attention to the differences between incidents that unfold like a mystery and incidents that unfold like a puzzle. His argument is that the unfolding of the Enron case did not proceed like a puzzle, in which investigators realized that shareholders were given incomplete information on the shady side-deals of Enron executives and proceeded to find the missing information they needed to explain Enron's sky-high stock price. Rather, the Enron case unfolded like a mystery, in which all of the information shareholders needed in order to see how Enron was cooking the books was fully disclosed from the beginning, but obscured in the white noise of complicated accounting and financial practices that firms engage in today.

Solving the Enron case meant discerning the evidence that mattered from the vast white noise of data. As Gladwell puts it, solving Enron was like diagnosing prostate cancer in a visibly healthy patient or predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall from intelligence collection. All of the information you need is right there, but since there are multiple inferences you can draw from surface-level symptoms, you can't linearly deduce the origins of the problem from the ends. You solve the mystery by making predictions about the probable outcomes of critical junctures where causes meet their contingent effects, not by finding some missing piece of information, some missing link.

Gladwell's argument is really about the complexification of systems in modern society, and the inundation of puzzle pieces we have at our fingertips in today's Information Age. Intelligence, financial reports, results from medical tests--the data we need to answer our questions is nearly always out there, lost in a tangled mass of less useful data. The intelligence community is more concerned with sifting useful data from the noise of useless data. Doctors are concerned not with developing more tests for as yet undetected measures, but with developing more sophisticated explanations for the relationships between test results and diagnostic causes.

It's a great and useful distinction, this difference between problems that are puzzles and problems that are mysteries. And the argument seems to be that whereas in the past, big media cases unfolded like puzzles, today, in our complex markets, politics and societies, big scandals unfold like mysteries. The Watergate scandal and Deep Throat's provision of the key missing link to the case are a thing of the past; today, we have complex mysteries of multiple possible causes for each observed outcome. Problems are harder to solve today than they were yesterday.

But were there ever that many problems that need to be solved like a puzzle rather than a mystery? Markets, politics and societies are undeniably more complex systems now than before, but haven't problems always had multiple contingencies and multiple causes? Haven't problems always been mysteries, regardless of how we treat them?

Why did democracy work in revolutionary America but collapse in revolutionary France? Why do more immigrants become citizens in Canada than in the U.S.? Why do labor unions form in newly globalizing regions?* It's not that we need missing information or missing links to answer these questions. It's that we need to reorganize the data out there to highlight causal explanations and built theories to construct a foundation for these explanations. We might collect more missing data in order to show that hey, the problem isn't that labor unions form in globalizing regions, it's that labor unions form in democratic regions, which are more likely to be globalizing as well. Finding the confounding variable in the problem is a missing link approach to a puzzle. But you're still stuck with the question of why unions form in democratic countries (not necessarily a true statement). And this question is a mystery, not a puzzle. I think the fact is, most problems have always been mysteries, not puzzles.

Maybe what has changed is not the nature of today's problems, but the treatment of these problems in circles like journalism, medicine, and intelligence analysis. Radiologists forty years ago were exuberant about the CAT scan, which allowed them to collect missing information like changes in cranial pressures and visual evidence of tumors, but this missing information didn't provide explanations for the origins and causes of these problems. They still had to fill in the gaps between evidence and outcome with narrative explanations of what actually happened.

Maybe the difference between a puzzle and a mystery is really a question of what kind of evidence you find. Do you see external symptoms of the underlying problem (puzzle), or do you see a theory of the developments leading to the outcome (mystery)? Maybe we need to see every problem as a puzzle until we have sufficient evidence to isolate the actual mechanism occurring (it's democracy, not globalization, that causes a proliferation in labor union formation); and only then can we build an explanatory narrative theorizing the nuts and bolts of the mechanism. Either way, the question of whether Gladwell's right that puzzles become mysteries with time and modernization is itself a puzzle. Or, if you'd like, a mystery. I'm not ready to attribute the move from puzzle-like approaches to solving problems to mystery-like approaches to solving problems to time and modernization. I think it's a question of kinds of evidence and methodology.

*All these mysteries are just lifted from academic books: Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Bloemraad's Becoming a Citizen, Silver's Forces of Labor. Sorry for the nerdiness.

First post

Hello, this is my first post on my blog. I'm new to this, and I thought maybe this will be a fun way to write stuff regularly. I'm a grad student, so probably I'll write a lot of boring school stuff. But I promise I'll try not to let myself ramble.

Also, a friend of mine and I keep another similar blog, on which I reproduce posts from here. That blog is twice as interesting as this one, since it has twice the bloggers.

Welcome to the blog, and

Happy new year!