Archive for February, 2007

Footnotes, This Month in Pop Culture, Oscar Style 2007

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Yup, this is going to be a long one.  But I’ll make it as brief as I can.

Brief, unlike the thesis footnotes I’ve been writing.  Yesterday, I spent just over two hours working on one part of my draft, and it went like this:

First five minutes:  I write a single, relatively unimportant sentence to support a sub-subclaim I want to make: “A simple scatter-plot of the same data with best-fit line indicates that this pair-wise correlation does not appear to be overly influenced by outliers, as seen in Figure 2*[26].” 

Next two hours:  I write Footnote 26, which is currently over 500 words long, and takes up about three quarters of that page.

Conclusion: I’m never going to finish writing this…!!!

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this continuously pressé.  Every day it feels like I’ve committed some awful crime and I’m just doomed to waiting to be caught…  the awful crime being not having already completed my thesis, of course.  Quelle horreur!

Miscellaneous (American) pop-culture observations for February 2007, aka “American Femininity” month:

(1) This seemed to have been a month of unsually high visibility for lesbians.  You had Ellen Degeneres hosting the Oscars, with her partner Portia de Rossi naturally making an appearance on the red carpet and at the after parties.  At the same Oscars, Melissa Etheridge performedI Need to Wake Up“, a song she wrote for the film An Inconvenient Truth, inspired she said by Al Gore’s message about the need to address climate change.  When the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song a little later, Melissa jumped up, kissed her partner Tammy Lynn Michaels and in her acceptance speech proceeded to thank her “incredible wife Tammy” and their four children.  On a related note, I have to say that I was extremely confused when reading this article from People covering the birth of Melissa and Tammy’s twins back in October last year.  I still can’t figure out exactly what the quote “these are our first two babies conceived together” means, from a clinical/genetics perspective…

(2) The national spotlight this past month was also cast a little further afield on motherhood in general.  Between Anna Nicole Smith’s unexpected death and Britney’s unexpected episodes, I’d say the outlook on all-American motherhood is looking a little tainted right now.  This is in contrast to last year, say, when we had periods of focusing on women like Nancy Pelosi (raised five children before running for office at 47!) or Angelina Jolie and Madonna’s admirable adoption decisions. (All this is in even starker contrast to last year’s focus on fathers, like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt who both became new dads.)

PS: And as a tenuously related bizarre pop culture “event” around women, let’s not forget about NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak…

I’m going to quickly wrap up with my Oscars 2007 style observations:

(1) I feel bad for the women who wore things that the American public is unattuned to understanding (never mind liking).  I noticed in going through the “vote: love it or hate it?” slideshow on that I very clearly skew European when it comes to style.  I especially felt bad for the ladies who chose Valentino (Anne Hathaway, Zhang Ziyi, Cameron Diaz), whose signature ruffles and bows are almost continuously reviled by the American public – although Cameron’s dress was admittedly not very flattering.  The same generally applies to people who wore this year’s Chanel (Kirsten Dunst, Penelope Cruz later in the night).  And of course I found Meryl Streep’s red carpet Prada ensemble both very witty as well as stylishly interesting (not to mention flattering), while most other viewers seemed to despise the look.

(2) In contrast, most voters seemed to love Liv Tyler in Marc Jacobs at the Vanity Fair party, which I did not.  So American. 

(3) I non-exhaustively loved:
On the red carpet: Jodie Foster in Vera Wang and Penelope Cruz in Versace… 
At the Vanity Fair party: Katie Holmes in Armani Privé and Natalie Portman in Lanvin…
Everywhere: Jennifer Hudson, whom I thought looked stunning throughout her multiple dress changes.

Writing this was relaxing.  Now back to work!  *feels shoulder muscles tensing*

The null post

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Have quite a lot I wanted to say: have multiple blog drafts waiting to be properly written.  However, I’m now very tired.  It’s very late.


PS: I must wake up to read Freud and Derrida in perhaps 6 hours.

Just back from a thesis meeting…

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Every day it becomes startlingly clearer that I am running out of thesis-writing time.  The panic feels almost palpable.  *heart pounds*

And right now I am mocked by the arrival of the huge Spring editions of the various glossy magazines to which I subscribe 🙁

Back to work.

PS: Given my recent discussions around social constructivsm as well as Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, this article from today’s Washington Post caught my eye.  The premise is clear from the article’s title: “Was Repressed Memory a 19th-Century Creation?”, and is based on work led by a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist that suggests that the repression of traumatic memories as a psychiatric disorder is a fairly recent “culture-bound syndrome”.  Somewhat unusually, the evidence cited is an extensive literary search that has as yet revealed no cases of traumatic memories being repressed and then later recovered prior to the 19th century.  This is unlike, say, cases of schizophrenia or depression that have been documented across cultures across a wide range of historical literature.


Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Yipes, we’ve had a pretty full day.

Surprise news from two friends.  Pretty surprising news – surprising enough that I felt glum and drained for a bit.

A surprise comment, much more pleasant of a surprise, although it made me feel a little bad too – this is why it’s easier to lavish praise than to give criticism, I think.  I’ll have to deal with it some other time though.

Almost all of my afternoon, evening and night was spent struggling with just one fiddly aspect of my dataset.  I feel like I just worked on a very hard, very long Ec problem set, and I’m *still* not done.   What’s particularly frustrating is that the cumulative 30+ hours that has been spent on just this single, very simple indicator will probably translate into an overlooked line in my thesis: “Data for per capita GDP measured in constant 2000 US$ was compiled for the respective country years (see details in Appendix II, Section b)”.

Arghgh.  Never mind that of course the countries I’m working with have terribly patchy, approximate or non-existant economic/demography/weather time-series data.  And that the different sources I’ve had to reconstruct my data from have used non-equivalent reporting choices and naming conventions.  Plus of course I’m not exactly an expert on how to interpret and manipulate PPP, constant/current LCU and deflators to get exactly what I want.  Trust me, it was a lot harder than it seems.  More accurately, it remains a lot harder than it seems – I’m not even done because I simply cannot get the figures for Afghanistan to look plausible so I’m clearly doing something wrong.

Meanwhile, in a much happier place (relative to where I am with work), Milan fashion week continues.  I haven’t had much of a chance to look through the collections, and womenswear is so impossible to keep abreast of anyway.  Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m impressed at how Miuccia Prada translated the vision she presented at her menswear show into womenswear, given how difficult that vision was (I especially remember the ultra-fuzzy, slightly boxy, enveloping sweaters and coats).  And Cavalli really surprised me with the direction he’s taking, further and further away from what he’s known for – I’ll have to look at the collection again to decide whether I prefer the new restrained and lady-like classicism to his more theatrical, super-glamorous previous work.  And Dolce & Gabbana!  Oh!  It was pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from that runway – super-strong, aggressively sexy, stunningly iconographic ensembles and dresses.  In contrast, the Gucci womenswear seemed much more subdued, and at first glance appeared to be missing some of the confidence of the menswear.

Time for bed.

Economics, Environment, Development and Fashion

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

As I was saying to Professor L. after class, I think it is impossible to comprehensively capture “real” economic costs and benefits related to either environmental change (whether degradation, use or exploitation) or to development projects and development, broadly conceived.  I don’t even think the approximations have any claim to robustness, especially when tested against the yardstick of usefully guiding action or policy choices**.

Firstly there’s the idea that economic values are only relational and defined against a fast-moving dynamic (not necessarily an equilibrium) that varies across time (snapshot, cumulative, absolute sum, discounted, cycles), space and frame of reference (level of economic aggregation, particular individuals).  And that’s just the easy stuff–say sale price of a plot of land, commodity prices, wages or insurance premiums–and by “easy” I mean “already set by available markets” (even if completely arbitrarily–economists are well aware of the fuzziness around calculating GDP and the “stickiness” of prices and wages).  Then you move on to the ever more clearly philosophical and subjective measures: value of a life (life years, DALYs, healthcare costs, lost productivity, social networks), non-use values, “shadow prices”, impact of culture, identity, human security/suffering, and the cracks in the universalist appeal of economic benefit/cost analysis widen, and widen irreparably in my mind.  And then of course economic value is fundamentally about exchange and perceived equivalence.  But you can never really hope to exchange experiences or make ephemera equivalent to other ephemera in a meaningful way – I have zero desire to be part of a forest dwelling tribe, nor do these forest dwellers presumably desire to attend fashion shows and watch Ugly Betty.

* Fortunately, as the easy response to what Professor L. thought might be the difficult consequence of my critique of economics (“Then what are we left with to guide action or make decisions?”), I think the trick then lies in playing the existing language/philosophical/ideology game (shades of Wittgenstein) and perhaps shifting the rules to favor whatever outcome you prefer.  In the end, the same feature that I highlight as the key flaw in economic thinking–the reliance on “exchange” and “exchangability” (or substitution, equivalence etc.)–is also the marker of its dominance.  As the dominant ideology (notwithstanding Barthes’ insistence that ideology must necessarily/definitionally be dominant), “economics” is a broadly shared set of values (or “myths” in the language of Barthes, ie both sign and signified sensu de Saussure) that has permeated not just everyday life (“It’s the economy, stupid”; “Greed is good”; “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”), but more importantly the ruling classes.  So you work within the boundaries of these existing constructions (or just beyond that) to get what you want (or desire, in the reified sense).

** Further, my critique of economics is not really that it cannot accurately model human choices; in fact as a constructivist I think the relationship is primarily and increasingly reversed – the generalized “mythological” ideology of economics creates a paradigm where people are conditioned to “naturally” act as homo economicus, akin to Orwell’s “Newspeak” if you like.  Rather, my critique is directed towards the trifold illusions of empiricist accuracy, universality (applicable to answering just about any practical question) and neutrality (objective, moral-neutral, non-ideological/political) that are figured (figuré)or gestured at by “economics”.  I suppose most of this is structurally defined, and thus will endure as long as the edifice of economics dominates thinking, discourse and (most of all) intuition.

At the end of the day, my sense is that the world is currently ruled by economists (and businessmen, yes generally men), which corresponds directly and naturally with the primacy of economics as an (invisible, hidden, unknown, disguised, ignored) ideology.  Lest we should forget, the world has been ruled previously by priests and philosophers, generals and artists, scientists and patrons of the arts, dandies and hippies…. each period marked by its own prevailing zeitgeist.

It is telling that a 1960s roundatable discussion and defense (not to mention analysis) of fashion among Roland Barthes, Henri LeFebvre and Jean Duvignaud was richly informed by concepts and issues from literature, history, sociology, technology, morality and linguistics, whereas the various defenses of fashion in the popular film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) reduce essentially to the economic value of an industry measured in “billions of dollars and thousands of jobs”, with brief and empty supporting allusions towards “art” and of the high-quality, yet almost-incidental editorial content (not to be confused with editorial fashion spreads) in fashion magazines.

Ok, enough soapbox for now.  Time to post, and then see if I think I should password protect it or move it offline/elsewhere.

PS: There, I managed to cover all my academic focii at a single go (ESPP/Economics, and French).

The “Club Culture” Party pictures!

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007


(9 Feb 2007)

At long last I’ve gone through them and thrown a bunch of them onto Flickr…  although I haven’t labelled or captioned any of them.  I’m sad that I didn’t take more pictures at the CNY potluck dinner.  Oh well.

There should be a lot to say, but blogging seems a real luxury right now.  I had two thesis-related meetings today; wow do I have a lot of work left to do.  On an unrelated note, I hate being stranded away from my dining hall and missing mealtimes.  Prior to dinner at 5pm I had a banana, a serving of Lay’s potato chips, a slice of choco-banana bread (someone baked a loaf for HUCE!) and a milky mug of tea…  which was still probably about 800 KCal, but nonetheless didn’t feel very substantial.


PS: I cannot wait to throw more parties!!  Also, I’m excited to have my cousins visit in April!! *waves* 🙂

Happy CNY!

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

It’s the Year of the Pig, apparently.

My day started with an emergency admissions tour, which overran and made me a bit late for lunch, which lasted three hours, and then barely two hours of thesis dataset building before it was time to spend the rest of the night eating pineapple tarts and drinking green tea.

I’m glad Xue decided to hold a dinner party – if not the rest of us thesis-trapped seniors would never have bothered.  There was yu sheng and everything, not to mention oodles of miscellaneous comfort food like roti prata and mee goreng.  I even brought home a tub of fried rice and roast chicken.  And the company was quite select as well.  A fun time all round.

I wish my dataset was more revealing…  gah.

The day after Valentine’s, and the big snowstorm

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

Something I meant to write yesterday but put off in the rush to get a whole bunch of things done:

One of the many exceptional perks of working with/at HUCE is the fact that the space is frequently used for fancy faculty dinners and receptions for guest speakers.  What that means is that there is a steady influx of fancy finger food platters catered by the exceptional Formaggio Kitchen.  The thing is that professors and distinguished guests at events like these don’t usually spend much time sampling the fine cheeses, home-made paté and antipasto served.  Instead, they prefer to network, maintain their low-cholesterol diets and preserve their fresh breaths, all in the secure knowledge that a similarly delectable catered dinner will be served in a little bit (I forget the caterer HUCE uses).  What this ultimately means is that shortly after these events there is usually a plenitude of artisanal brie, fresh fruit, parma proscuitto, sliced baguettes, sweet pickled onions and whole grain mustard all laid out beautifully and left for the hungry (grad) students still lurking after hours.

Yum 🙂

PS: If you’re ever in need of speciality/gourmet deli products or catering in the Cambridge, MA area, I highly recommend Formaggio Kitchen (based on my familiarity with about half their exquisite speciality platters).

The weather was magnificent today.  Bright and hard edged with a refreshing chill.  What can be better than trenchcoat weather?  I guess perhaps beach weather – as we were walking out of class Prof G told me she was heading back to her apartment to pick up her bags and catch a flight to Puerto Rico for the long weekend ahead.  Although I only managed to say it in French to her at the time – Buon Viaggio!

I’m finally seeing some progress on the empirical end of my thesis, which is really good considering that I’ve essentially abandoned the qualitative part (gathering electronic dust in draft form) while working on getting data this past 9 days.  Which also means I should get back to work on that.

I received a surprise call from London today, which was pleasant.  I got to say pretty much all the things I’ve been meaning to write about, but haven’t had much a chance to given the swirl of events.  Having a semi-personal yet business-y phone conversation with someone you’ve never met is always going to be a touch strange though, given how difficult it is to guage the other person’s reactions, especially over the slight transmission delay.  I pray it went well, and came off favorably.

Back to the dataset.

PPS: Today was my first section meeting for Ec1010b, and it was held in a building I walk by all the time but never knew was a Harvard academic building.  Turns out the very nice space also houses the oh-so-niche Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies!  I’d heard recently that it’s the smallest concentration in the college – the department website lists a grand total of seven current undergraduate concentrators!

Was that a vacation, sort of?

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Feeling a touch deflated, after the excitement of speeding on the Acela Express down and up the Northeast Corridor.  Two down, one shaky, three to go.  It’s all happening so fast now. 

On the return trip, the woman who sat next to me (some high-powered headhunter from a top HR consultancy) was fairly intimidating in her ceaselessly efficient productivity.  While I spent most of the 3.5 hours snoozing, eating dinner and doing a small amount of reading, she appeared to accomplish dozens of important tasks on her blackberry, cellphone, laptop, hardback book and miscellaneous presentation folders.  These tasks included (re)scheduling various meetings in different cities on both coasts for the next two weeks.  And all while appearing composed and highly competent the whole time.  She even had the small ziplock bag of roasted almonds (ie healthy power-woman snack) in her stylish (but all-business) minimalist sturdy leather totes in bright red and dusky orange!

I’m reminded also of Prof S.  *Impressed* 

Maybe I’ll feel more optimistic in the morning, after a nice long sleep.

PS:  I did greatly enjoy my meeting with the Prof today, even if it seemed a little surreal that I had spent all that time travelling (at their expense) for such a brief conversation that could have been mostly (but less personally) conducted over the phone.  And of course the setting was just lovely, and it was nice to catch up with HJ.

Happy Birthday… to me :)

Saturday, February 10th, 2007


A quarter of a century.  Ugh.

The “Club Culture” party (which I refuse I think of as my birthday party) went splendidly, and with very few hitches.  Excellent music, great guests, happy partiers.  Maybe I’ll talk more about it sometime when it isn’t 4am and my feet aren’t sore from dancing.