natural language

I find you delightful and interesting. I admire you. But if it seems like I am quiet or never talk to you, it’s probably because I literally cannot.

I don’t mean “literally cannot” in the flippant way, as if you’ve done something unforgivable. I think I have an inability to react to certain conversational cues in the expected way, and it makes it painful for you to talk to me.

If you and friends have left a group of people after I tried to join a conversation, or let an opening question wither after I answer in my way, I don’t blame you in the least – it’s good signal, and helps me get closer to figuring out what’s going on.

On the other hand, I’d prefer not to skip events due to not being able to talk to most people (and the natural opposite, monopolizing a few people’s attention because they are the only people I can talk to), so I’m going to list out some observations.

Here are some things that happen in a one-on-one conversation:

  • When someone asks me a question, I answer too fast or too briefly, without asking my own questions, and what should be a conversation turns into an exhausting interrogation.
  • When someone asks me a question, I answer with an entire paragraph, anticipating all future questions. “So what do you do?” “I work for X, the location at Y, doing Z in role W — I’ve been there for about k years. It’s pretty good, I like it!” “Oh, neat…”
  • I interrupt. Horrendously. I can’t tell if the gap is for me to ask a question / paraphrase, or for you to say m–ok, I guess you were going to say more. Sorry!

And in groups:

  • In larger groups, I just. can’t. get. a. word. in.

I vividly remember one end-of-rehearsal discussion at Strictly Seattle about “conversations,” and in 20 minutes, I could not find some way to give my perspective, which was that I have a hard time getting into conversations, and that we should consider whose voices do not sound. (basically, what Jarrett Walker said)

I especially rued this opportunity because Strictly Seattle is a dance intensive, dancers are very body-aware, and maybe they would have had ideas — or maybe they would have just looked at me, “Poor awkward Lu,” left a lot of silence, and moved on in what they were all talking about before.

  • In medium (3-5) groups, I leave dead air.

I actually feel like I talk too much in medium groups, especially when other participants are women. But if I’m saying something, I don’t indicate well that I’m finished with a thought, and it seems like the other people are courteously hanging, waiting for me to conclude. This is a natural opposite of the aforementioned interrupting problem.

One thing that makes these (fairly mild, in the grand scheme of things) worse is that it seems to happen so much more with women than men, especially women who are mostly friends with women.

I fear being seen as a homewrecker or otherwise unacceptably heterosocial, but mostly, it’s a problem because I can’t be friends with so many of you.

Are men more tolerant of me because I share interests with them? Have I deliberately cultivated interests that primarily let me interact with men?  Under the assumption that people are mostly homosocial, maybe a greater percentage of men are awkward, and so, men have more practice talking to awkward people and waiting out conversational awkwardness?

Are women’s conversations more advanced: more teasing fragments, confiding of piquant opinion, and other devices I don’t even understand, arenas where a drily-delivered pun has no currency?

I guess I’m looking for a Speech-Language Pathologist, but one who deals with gestures and sentences, not phonemes as atoms. I don’t have trouble putting my lips together and parting with a pop, just once, crisply, but I do have problems answering a question and returning it gracefully, not with a kludge like “what about you?”, and not with a torrent of information.

I do realize that a lot of these ‘awkwardnesses’ I list are due to the assumption that conversations are about declaring facts. Maybe the easiest thing I can do is to think of conversations as opportunities to learn about people, and that I should ask more questions. Maybe this is what makes some people seem easier to talk to: they are comfortable with conversations composed of statements, and others feel that this shuts them out?

(addressing the smaller-eared elephant in the room: no, I don’t think it’s race or age – there are counterexamples all over the place)

Or you know, it could just be that I am still a nerd, and I forget how much of a nerd I am until I am with people who are not nerds. I like digital cats, partner dance, fitness, music, transit, and using words from science while having forgotten most of the details behind them. I dunno. This seems like a long-enough list of things.

You might be tempted to think, “well, I’ve never had a problem talking to you!” This is what makes this problem so hard to figure out: if I can’t talk to you, I can’t become good enough friends for you to take me aside and say, “Hey, Lu, do you ever notice that you do X?” It’s unfair for me to expect people who don’t know me well to do the hard work of observing and commenting.

But if it’s not a lot of work for you and this post inspires you to help, please, post just that. I really appreciate it, in unspeakable amounts.



I am going to write about cutting fruit.

Each way to cut fruit gives the eater a different advantage, but we don’t often list out the ways. This listing could be a table, though a sparse representation is more compact, and leaves room for comments.

Cutting an apple (around the core): allows you to eat a portion of the fruit at a time, lets you have no trash after eating the desirable parts of the fruit, easier to fit in the mouth / less noisy eating

Cutting an apple (through the core): This is an American practice that I have never understood. You risk more knife-injury, the hapless kids still have to eat the seeds, the seed particles spill out everywhere, and it’s not any faster than cutting around the core.

Cutting an apple (perpendicular to the core): to show that apples are the fruit of God, something something DaVinci code? art projects (look, a star stamp! also we should learn about monocots and dicots*) that seem incredibly wasteful in a modern context but maybe legit in an agrarian society?

[*] Once I was running one of those useless STEM events where we made soft serve ice cream in a bag. I actually tried saying “colligative property” to 5th graders. I also tried introducing graph theory concepts (yes! you said ‘family tree’ and isn’t it cool that you are never your father’s mother?) to a 13-year-old boy and a high-school-aged girl at a party this weekend and that did not really go over well.

Peeling an orange / citrus to eat in sections: allows you to eat a portion of the fruit at a time, lets you have no trash after eating the desirable parts of the fruit, lets you not emit odors that might be offensive to others

Cutting an orange into wedges: Allows you to serve a lot of people quickly while providing them with antioxidant-rich facials.

Cutting a durian: allows you to eat the fruit, lets you emit famously offensive odors, even before eating

Cutting a drupe (peach / plum / apricot / chimeras thereof) hemispherically (free stone): allows you to eat a portion of the fruit at a time, lets you have no trash after eating the desirable parts of the fruit, easier to fit in the mouth / less noisy eating, joy and satisfaction of the pit being free of the smothering flesh as you twist the two halves, as if cracking your knuckles or wiping your hands of some messy business

Cutting a drupe hemispherically (cling stone): sadness. bruising.

[pithy ending about fruits and labor]


This is my internet origin story. Essentially, I was a Luddite from the beginning.

It was probably 4th grade when people began “being online,” by which they mostly meant being on AIM, AOL Instant Messenger. It was treated as another place where kids could hang out, away from parents; in middle school, this would morph back into a physical location, “the fields,” a mosquito-ridden set of sports courts.

I had email: it was from our ISP, Optimum Online. When my friends wanted me to “get online,” I didn’t see the point of registering for an account — wasn’t this the same as sending a lot of short emails? Why not just do that? Why did I have to go through the onerous process of getting an account when under 13, which involved asking your parents for their credit card number and moreover, telling them what you were up to?

I remember the first night of trying to send quick short emails. Too much latency for conversation: it seemed lame and we stopped the experiment.

I then discovered how to evade the hassle of <13 account signup: lie, lie about everything. I just called AOL’s password recovery service and not a single fact I could remember from that time was helping the poor guy key into my accounts.

A bit sad, but perhaps it’s for the best that the away messages and profile text (proto status updates, proto Facebook updates, proto tweets!) stored under FrogertoLily2001 have disappeared into the ether.

observations on beef

It was finally getting wintry enough to make a pot of the Zeng family(*) beef stew: celery + onion + carrot, tomato base, and beef — and I always add cumin and chili powder out of reflex, and soy + cooking wine, out of a different reflex. The vegetables are in 1-2” segments out of rustic aesthetic and my use of a pressure cooker: any smaller and it turns to mush.

* My dad says he picked it up from the Mexican ladies in Tom’s River, NJ, where he worked as a full-time waiter at a fine dining establishment.

I use beef shank for this stew. Beef shank is cheap, delicious, and extremely tough to cut: an inch-thick tendon runs through it, a tendon to test your cleavers for sure, and the muscle is surrounded by sheets of connective tissue (fascia?) that are severable by only kitchen shears. It’s also near-impossible to chew if you haven’t cooked it enough.

No wonder the fascia is strong: it holds the muscles together. No wonder that tendon is thick: it joins the muscle to the leg that has to move a cow. No wonder the muscle is tough: it (historically, theoretically) brings the cow to grass, with which it sustains itself.

No $20-30 / plate restaurant in Seattle advertises beef shank. Osso buco is veal shank: the thighs of a baby cow that has not had to leave its mother. Aside from that, other humble cuts are associated with ‘ethnic’ cuisines: flank steak is associated with fajitas. Brisket is rustic. Tendon is an option on pho, one that I always get.

Instead, the meat I see served is stripped of all evidence that it ever was part of an animal, or evidence that it ever had to do work. Think of the idiom (switching animals, for a minute) “eating high on the hog”: when you’re doing well financially, you eat the parts of the animal that are far from the ground, since parts that touch the ground, or were connected to parts that touch the ground, had to do work.

Think of the most prized cuts: filet mignon, tenderloin, sirloin — these are from non weight-bearing parts of the animal, and are cleaned (by low-paid humans, probably the husbands of those Mexican ladies my dad got the stew from) into uniform pucks to the point that they might as well have been grown in a Petri dish.

It’s not just scarcity. A single steer has but a single tongue, but young men don’t go to Vegas and brag about eating tongue and sipping rye. It’s not flavor: filet mignon is so useless — so interior to the animal that it has little flavor of its own, and usually needs supplementing with sauces or bacon.

What does it say about a nation when the bulk of its dining dollars go towards flesh that has never supported weight, is homogeneous, and doesn’t show that it ever existed in context of bone or other muscle?

We value effortlessness in America. The people at the top — the ones inside our governing structures — are, by and large[*], ones that haven’t worked very hard for it, but have been helped inside by connections that aren’t discussed. Maybe this is a matter of politeness: there aren’t enough connections for everyone, so we won’t mention it.

It’s also not normal to talk about how hard you worked. Let’s use the Barbie utterance, “Math is hard” as an example of mainstream attitudes towards work. If this were followed with “And it’s really beautiful when you work for it” (aside: society is happy to reinforce this message when it comes to women’s physical appearance), it would be accurate and encouraging. Instead the doll said “… let’s go shopping”, which tells kids to give up.

* One thing that “makes America great” is that it might not totally necessary to have connections: there seem to be a few spots left for bootstrapping miracles.

I could be fine with having the secret of beef shank to myself. If it became the hottest new menu item and my price per pound doubled, I suppose I would personally be less happy. But from a utilitarian point of view, it seems unproductive for the seemingly-effortless and seemingly-disconnected to be most valuable.

[I thought I had already written another fantasia on butchering and structure, but I can’t find it, so that’s coming soon.]

antioch 277 – sacred harp in Latin?

When I started putting Latin puns in my changelist descriptions, I realized that I had to channel those energies elsewhere.

Maybe I should translate something, I thought. Thing is, my Latin was never great, and is now next to nonexistent — Latin->English was always a struggle. On the other hand, English->Latin always felt more accessible, and I had some great (easy) source texts at my disposal — shape note songs.

Why are they easy? The texts are old, so most of the words exist. The texts are short, so I’ll actually finish. Moreover, they’re Protestant texts, so I’ll have some satisfaction of creating something original, vs putting English that had been translated from Latin back into (less elegant) Latin.

This song has three verses and the chorus after each verse; I’ll shorthand “Glory, Hallelujah” with “..”; google translate says that is “gloria alleluia” and I’ll take its word for it.

1: Scio redemptorem vivere [indirect statement!], ..
Quam solatium haec verbum est, ..

Chorus: Acclamate, adorate, ..
Surrectus est, inventus est, .. [a little loose here]

2: Vivit ut amore benedicat, .. [subjunctive of purpose]
Vivit ut in caelo placeat, .. [again!]

3. Vivit ut demones opprimat, .. [this line scans poorly]
Vivit nec non me inspirat, ..

I’m sure there are mistakes; feel free to let me know. I’ll also take requests, so that I may not (hah) spew dead languages at unsuspecting coworkers.


I’ve been musing about my name as it relates to the vagaries of sound, meaning, and probability.

Here are some explanations of each picture / caption.

“What people hear in loud parties”: The image is ‘blue glue’, and while no one hears both, they often hear one or the other. I guess Lou is a man’s name / I might be overenunciating the ‘l’ — but it is hard to enunciate a liquid!. Honorable mention for this image position is Blues Clues — people also hear ‘Clu’ a lot.

“What Chinese people guess”: It’s not so bad to be named ‘beautiful jade,’ so I assume a lot of girls with Lu4 get this character, making it a safe guess.

A quick note on Chinese words in English: You go from character to pinyin (“spelling,” roughly) (with tones) to pinyin (no tones) to American pronunciation. Each step is _non-injective_: several characters that go to the same pinyin (with tones), four pinyin (with tones) per pinyin (no tones), so on and so forth. Using a concrete example, ‘beautiful jade,’ 璐, goes to Lu4, goes to Lu, goes to “lu” (the pronunciation) — but as do many other pinyin. You lose a ton of information, but people deal by making good guesses — my name just isn’t one of the common guesses.

“What confused Americans think”: Lucy Liu, the actress / visual artist. This one illustrates two confusions: that Lu must actually be my surname, and that Lu must be short for _something_. It also highlights the paucity of Asian women in media, though Liu’s stardom is to be celebrated.

I don’t mean ‘confused’ as ignorant — Americans with far better Chinese than mine have been intrigued by this last-name first-name, especially as “Liu”, an extremely common as a last name, is pronounced in English in the same way as Lu. Lv (like ‘lune’ in French) and Lu are also more common as surnames, and are pronounced the same way in English — this is that relentless loss of information I was talking about earlier. Probability says you’re making a good guess, but for me, it is incorrect.

As for Lu <= Lucy — If my name were Lucy, wouldn’t I introduce myself as Lucy? I’d actually get a sibilant to enunciate.

“What Americans with kids think”: Cindy Lou Who. I had an aftercare (school ends at 2:30, adult jobs end at 5…) teacher, Sue Sette, who called me this. I remember her and those times fondly.

“What numerics people think”: Lower-Upper (LU) factorization — ok, so ninth graders learn this too, more or less, just without the name. Linear Algebra was an important course for me because it taught me new ways to think about information.

“Another acceptable girl-name guess”: Dew. Like Rocio.

“What I am in Connecticut”: My name is homophonic with ‘deer’ in Chinese. There are a lot of deer in CT, and Ellen also came up with this in high school in CT.

“What I am in Portland / England”: The Portland Loo is a great convenience — free public toilets that are not useful for sleeping in / drug deals and are cleaned by a human: it’s like the opposite of “why we can’t have nice things” — “a reasonable thing that Portland (so sadly, not Seattle-we) manages to have”.

“What my name actually means”: Road.

I love my name. It’s not gendered in ANY conceivable way; it is an aspirational name, but an aspiration made concrete: it’s not some nebulous ‘hope’, but a path, paved and drained: I’d toyed with Lucy but it didn’t fit, and now I’m glad I stayed the course.


I used to be a champ at both falling asleep AND waking up[1], but lately I seem to have lost the ability to fall asleep. Road noise, unpredictable nighttime temperature, mind noise, whatever — after another day cut short due to sleeping badly, I decided to do something about it. Continue reading