Friday, September 19, 2008

Regression via Music

Courtesy of YouTube, I toured some of my earliest musical memories today. Several hours of this nostalgia is truly mind-altering. The experience is available to virtually anyone. Just plug the names of your favorite childhood bands/songs into the search box on YouTube, and let the memories wash over you. If you have a hard time drawing out these names from your failing hard drive, check out Wikipedia's list of pop hits via year.

Music is ubiquitous, but what was the first tune that really evoked something for you? For me, it was George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord". As best I can recall, I was in a YMCA van in the San Fernando Valley, on an excursion to Canoga Park. That must have been around 1970 or 71. The song is hypnotic, spiritual, trans-cultural, and boundary-breaking. If you believe in "imprinting", that one song might explain a bit of my personality.

Shortly thereafter, the family up and moved to the East Coast. My fourth grade teacher would allow students to bring their favorite 45's and play them on occasion. A few years later I'd be able to apply words like "sappy" or "pretentious" or "hollow" or "gutless" to music, but not at that time. The Partridge Family was popular, and I'd be lying if I said that some of those tunes don't still touch me. "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat" was my fave.

There were pop songs by singers/groups like the Turtles, Paper Lace ("The Night Chicago Died"), Three Dog Night ("Black and White"), Grand Funk Railroad, Looking Glass ("Brandy, You're a Fine Girl"), Tony Orlando ("Knock Three Times"), and Loudon Wainwright ("Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road") floating around the room. I wouldn't expect a 2008 pre-teen to dig that stuff...much of it lacks the dense "wall of sound" that we now expect. Too rinky-dink, too much bubblegum. Ballads, high concepts.

For whatever reason, you didn't hear the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in that room. Perhaps it just boiled down to the particular tastes of the older siblings of my classmates. Maybe it was one dominant classmate who always managed to get his K-Tel hit album pushed to the front of the cue. Don't recall.

One song that holds up really well, though, is the Raspberries' "Go All the Way". Up to today, I had thought the title was "Don't Go Away". Try not to get hung up on the early 70's fashion and mannerisms:

That clip was from the "Mike Douglas Show". There's a longer version of the clip on Youtube where the band meets Billy Jean King, fresh off her whipping of Bobby Riggs, following the performance. Issues of race and gender permeated the culture. Hell, you can even find a YouTube clip of the entirely un-controversial Partridge Family playing "I Think I Love You" under a "Woman Power" banner.

As I write, I've segued into the Partridge Family's "Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque". For quite a while, my 9 year old brain (and a very naive 9 year old brain at that) interpreted the song as an ode to Thanksgiving..."Point Me in the Direction of Our Turkey". Anyway, I can't say I dislike it. The lyrics are derivative in the sense that every other songwriter was already tinkering with the theme of hopping into a bus or a car or a train, or hitchhiking, with or without a dog, and sucking in the grandeur of the USA. What happened to those tunes? Gas prices, I guess.


Now, fast-forward through progressive rock, disco, punk, new-wave, grunge, etc., to Bangkok in the mid-90's. It's odd how certain tunes find popularity here in Southeast Asia, when it eludes them in their countries of origin. Everyone here knows "Love Me Love My Dog" by Pete Shelley. Dig it up. Lobo is popular ("Me and You and a Dog Named Boo", "I'd Love You to Want Me"). Have you heard Dan Fogelberg's "Sutter's Mill"? A lot of Thais have.

Another song that met some success in Southeast Asia was "Knife" by a dude who went by the name "Rockwell". He'll be remembered as a "one hit wonder" in the States for his "Somebody's Watching Me", with Michael Jackson singing backup. He's also the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy. "Knife" is a tender, heartfelt, tuneful breakup deserved some success back home.

With a cassette of these Southeast-Asia-only hits playing endlessly in the background, my (ex) girlfriend Noina and I spent a tearful night together. I had to fly back to the States, and couldn't say when I'd return. The lights were off, all words exhausted, but neither of us could sleep. We just snuggled, all sweaty in a one room apartment with no air-conditioning. Thus these tunes, composed in the 70's and early 80's, were stamped in my brain in the 90's. Hearing them in 2008, memories of those feelings, that time, and that place come flooding back.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Culturally Biased Number Puzzle

Below is a number series puzzle. I'll give the answer midway through this post.


What's the next number in the series? It's not as easy as it looks.

I'm guessing that Thais would find this puzzle more difficult than would English speakers. Here's the version that would probably be easier for a Thai, and more difficult for a Westerner:


Much ado is made of "cultural bias" in various psychometric tests. I don't have strong opinions on the issue. It seems reasonable to think that steps can be taken to minimize, if not remove, cultural bias. It should also be possible to make post-test adjustments to account for such bias. Sparks start to fly when someone implies that one ethnic group is brighter than another; this accounts for the intense academic interest in the subject.

I'm no linguist, but it seems that many languages in this part of the world make heavy use of "counters". The Thai language has about 200 of these words. Indonesian language has many. I've been told that Chinese does as well. English language has a few commonly used counters as well. If you say, "I'd like two loaves of bread", the word "loaves" is the counter. For many objects, English speakers forego the counter (e.g. "She has three stamps"). The Thais, however, use counters for virtually everything. In Thinglish, you'd say "She have stamp three flat thing". There's a special word that helps you count small flat things. In Thai, at least, the counter always follows the thing you're counting, so you wouldn't hear "She have three flat thing stamp".

So, coming back to the puzzle, if you ask a Westerner, "What do you see below?"...


...he would say "I see one one".


Ask him again, and he'll say, "I see two ones".



But, try the same game with a Thai:


In Thinglish, he'd say, "I see one one tua". ("tua" is the Thai counter for letters and numbers)


Now he'll say, "I see one two tua".



By now you probably understand the puzzle. The final number you see in the Western version of the puzzle is 111221. The number has three ones, followed by two twos, followed by one one.


The final number in the Thai version is 122111. That number has one one tua, followed by two two tua, followed by one three tua.


Interestingly, if you reverse the Western result, you get the Thai result!

Another question: given a "seed number" of 1 through 9, will any of the strings eventually converge? For example, if you start with 2, will these strings eventually merge with with the strings you get if you start with 3? If you use the Thai counting system, it will be easier to realize that the answer is "no"!

In any case, it seems reasonable to believe that one version of the puzzle would be easier/more difficult for Westerners/Thais, given their linguistic habits. A test maker could easily be ignorant of these differences.


A Westerner might find the Asian use of counters to be inefficient. It certainly is, if you're talking about compressing information into the shortest possible sentence. But there are plenty of inefficiencies in the English language. Why say "This is a table" when you could simply say "This table", as you would in Thinglish? Language is not simply about compressing information. It's about offering up information in ways that other brains, with limitations on speed and capacity, can understand. Different languages deal with these limitations in different ways.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Eating Lethocerus Indicus

A perusal of this blog provides ample evidence that culinary sqeamishness isn't one of my weaknesses. I've gobbled many a six-legged creature here in Thailand, to impress, shock, satisfy a dare, or possibly to fill my stomach. The usual mode of preparation is to fry the critters. The (presumably) gooey innards are lost in the process, so you wind up with a clear plastic bag full of crunchy exoskeletons. The vendor has a spray bottle of soy sauce on his cart.

The giant Thai waterbug is different. The males, at least, don't meet their destinies in hot oil. Instead, their reservoirs of pheromones are removed. The pheromone is then used in various sauces. I've tried these sauces.

It's difficult for me to see the appeal. Nail polish remover, ethyl acetate, is the closest comparison I can make. Others claim that the notes of gorgonzola cheese offer similarities (olfactory perception is sooooo subjective). The prime scent components of gorgonzola, however, do not include hexenyl acetate, the waterbug's love juice. You may not be repulsed at the odor of nail polish remover, but you don't mix it in your hollandaise sauce either. Some Thais might claim that essence of waterbug is a taste that only true gourmands can appreciate. For me, however, the real gastronomical delights on this planet are all united in one characteristic: complexity. But pheromones are, by nature, simple, a single chemical that interacts with a single receptor on your amour's antennae.

Thais call the waterbug "mangda". This is not to be confused with horseshoe crabs, whose eggs truly are a delicacy, which also go by the name "mangda". The Thai word for "pimp" is also "mangda" seems that male horseshoe crabs are lazy creatures that often get around by hitching a ride on the backs of females.

I'd post my own photos of the waterbug, but the following, awesome video by an honest-to-goodness zoologist is all you really need.

How many times in history has a Thai waterbug found itself on a $2 bill?