A Visible City

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

To Label or Not to Label?

Blogger now not only allows me to tag my posts (that's label in google talk for some reason), but I can display for all my readers the labels and how often I have used them. For now I have added that widget (see right side of the screen).

At first, I thought I would go back to all my old posts and tag them (maybe I still will). Then it seemed daunting. Then I worried about being somewhat consistent in my tagging, so that a reader could clearly see that I write a lot about anthropology, or social media. But then I looked at my posts and realized I actually write about a lot of different things. So if I start labeling, do I end up with just a long list of tags? Or do I then feel a need to constrain what I write about to a defined set of categories?

I realize blogs with a theme are powerful...and I think I have some themes running through here...interspersed with random thoughts or items that catch my interest.

What to do? Does it matter? Is there meaning in tags (beyond the meaning I as the tagger ascribe to them)? A goal of semantic web is to provide structure to the web through labeling and tags, and my understanding is that ideally it is supposed to work whether it is my categorization of the world, or yours.

By the way, I am not sure you want to get into my categorization of the world--I am one of those people who knows exactly where a book is on my shelf because it is in a perfectly logical place to me, but you'd probably never figure it out.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Yammer and distractions

We had a very interesting teleconference with some folks from Yammer on Friday. It was a great opportunity to learn about best practices and for our security minded folks to ask questions in that arena. There were probably 10 or 12 people on the call, mostly non-colocated, and several were live yammering the call. While I didn't add posts describing the content of the call, I did join into the discussions. It was an interesting experience for me. It was nice to have the side conversations, but I have to admit it was also distracting. Is it any less rude or distracted than emailing in a face to face meeting? I suppose since it was based in teh content of the meeting it may bedifferent...I know others found value in reading the yams later. I should perhaps fess up to trying to do some other work as well, but I know it distracted me and I am trying (not always successfully) to cut down on the mutlitasking to be more focused.

My most important reminder to try not to be distracted is Julian...with so much work to do it is easy to try to multitask while playing with him...but why?

It's later than it really is (in the US anyway)

So I am really not too pleased about switching to Daylight Savings Time today. I barely understand why we make the change anymore anyway, and why we have extended it to 8 months of the year in the United States. Not changing the clocks was one of the rational things about Arizona.

I get that the purported reason for the switch is to save on electricity and other power costs. I'm all for that. I also get that a century ago, the usage patterns of electricity did mean that DST led to conservation. However, recent studies show that same conservation effect is not necessarily true today (if it ever was).

Maybe I am just griping because I lost an hour today. Maybe I resent that the mornings will be dark again. Or maybe this whole clock thing is just silly.

Anthropology and Museums

We went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Saturday. The primary purpose of the visit was dinosaurs--the barosaurus was a big hit, I guess something so big is pretty fascinating to someone very small. We also visited the solar system, and the cosmic pathway was another big hit, though more for running up an down a big spiral than anything else.

What I noticed most was along our path between dinos and space...the various halls showing human cultures, which unfortunately haven't changed in years. The dinosaur halls seemed relatively recently updated (I am pretty sure I would have learned a few new things if I hadn't been going through at a 4-year old's pace). And Rose Center for Earth and Space received a lot of attention when it opened, both because it is a wonderful exhibit wing, and because when it opened it did not include Pluto as a planet (several years before the International Astronomical Union declassification).

Anyway, to cross the museum we walked through the hall of African Peoples. Great artifacts, but to me these older exhibits still come across as "what interesting foreign people, look how different they are." And they live far away too.

I realize that politics and money play a great deal into which exhibits get updated, and anthropology often doesn't figure high into either one. But to me it is unfortunate that there isn't more public education around a holistic view of humanity. We have enough of a natural (human) tendency to emphasize otherness, I'd rather fight against that.

I also realize it begs the question of how else to exhibit the great collections museums like AMNH have. In the spirit of being holistic, why not exhibits around basic human activities, that could then show the variations across time and cultures, as well as similarities? Of course spirituality and pilgrimage jumped to my mind first, but I know I am biased in that regard having done my own research in that area. What about shelter, or food and sustenance? Art and decorations?

Ah well when I make my fortune I guess I can endow museum exhibits, huh?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Kindergarten

We went to the kindergarten orientation the other night, and I found myself unsettled afterward. I should start by saying we aren't yet 100% sure we'll go to the neighborhood school; they only offer half day for kindergarten (somewhat problematic for working parents).

At any rate, I wasn't unsettled by the school itself. By the end of the evening we felt pretty good about it. Admittedly having them talk about snacks and backbacks before the content of a typical day didn't match my priorities. (OK, I know different parents have different concerns, but mine are really about what is he going to be doing day to day, what is going to be learning). And my uneasiness was not about sending him off to school, since he's been in day care full time for 4 years. And it's not the thought of putting a little guy on the bus alone (well ok, maybe that a little).

On some reflection, I realized was unsettled me was all the forms we brought home. Starting school means it is time for him to be tracked and stacked and other impersonal stuff, like "do you really live in this town?" Yeah, I know he's been in the system since the day he was born (hey the kid even has a passport) but something about a stack of forms really did it for me.

Who am I, how do I prove it to you, and what do you let me do once you know?

I got my driver's license today. It was actually the first time I can remember going to the DMV for a renewal. I've had to get new ones when I've moved, but have either moved before a renewal, or lived in a state with fairly loose renewal rules. When I was 25 I moved to Arizona, I handed over my (soon to expire) Texas license, and they handed me back a new one good till I was 60--that was a little scary actually. And that TX one had been renewed by mail a few years before that...In fact my mother was allowed to renew over the internet when she was 65. I guess at least Connecticut confirms I can walk in the door of a DMV office every 6 years. Pretty amazing when you think about it, this little card not only gives me legal permission to drive, gets me on airplanes and once upon a time bought beer (no one's asked for that in a while).

And I have another photo ID, for work. This one carries an RFID tag, which codes what doors I can open and tracks my comings and goings (except for when I follow others in or out without scanning my badge). Recently a security guard in a different building tried to insist that I had to replace it because it was the old style. I decided it wasn't worth the argument to explain that the outer style of the badge has no effect on its validity as long as I can scan in the door. Noone looks at the picture.

In the spirit of full replacement of IDs today I gave in and had a new pic taken to get a new badge at work too. Wonder if it will still open all the same doors?

Search Engine Optimization

I was in a teleconference the other day, where a new web site was being demoed. What was interesting to me was that the vendor kept pointing out elements that were on the page for Search Engine Optimization. I admit to knowing very little about SEO, besides how important it is for driving traffic, especially on a retail site. I think was intrigued me was that these elements were big chunks of text that were visually unappealing...in other words, good for driving traffic, not so good for visual design.



I suppose if you have found what you are looking for, appearances don't much affect stickiness (and because of SEO lots of sites are starting to look like this), but where is the balance with good design?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Tweets and Yams

I originally signed up for Twitter (@lxmack) a while ago, but didn't really do anything with it--no tweets, no followers. Then had a couple of friends sign up to follow me...still didn't do anything. A few weeks ago I thought that I should give it more of a try...and I have to admit that I still don't get it.

I suppose I could come up with plenty of things to tweet about (the process of buying a new washer, the mystery of the blood in the house) but it seems time consuming and I am not sure who wants to know. My colleague John Braun very kindly encouraged me and gave some great advice, the most intriguing of which was his comment that Twitter can act like a group brain--ask a question and get an immediate answer.

On the flip side, I joined Yammer about the same time I tried to get active on Twitter. Best quick explanation of Yammer is that it's like Twitter for inside a company (you have to have a valid email address on your corporate domain), without the 14o character limit.

I joined Yammer after reading about it because I wanted to see how it might help our innovation initiative--one thing I keep hearing from folks is variations on a theme of needed to connect to other employees. I have to admit, Yammer wasn't very interesting at first. I was maybe the 3rd or 5th person from my company to sign up, meaning there wasn't a lot of activity. However, in the last couple of weeks around 150 people have signed up, with some very active participants. Aneta Hall has written a very informative post about our experience and how norms have been established.

And I have to admit, the group brain works. Ask a question, get an answer, and now I am talking to folks I never knew, in entirely different parts of the company. To be fair, for all the activity, it does seem to come from a core group of users. Hard to know how may are lurking, and how many signed up and haven't checked back in. One colleague from a different department called me today to say that Yammer seems to him like a "never-ending hallway conversation" and it wasn't meant as a complement.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Testing blogwriterlite

Playing with my iTouch, seeing how the free blogging tools work. Very keen on free. But not keen on the lack of touchtyping, so this one is for quick posts only.

Signing back on

It's been a while, but I am back. For a while wasn't sure I had anything new to say to the world, at least that wasn't based on proprietary research. Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about innovation (hey it's my job), new media and so-called "social networks" in the work environment. Lots of interesting things happening in all these spaces, and I realized that blogging would be a good way to work out my own thoughts on the subjects, and hopefully get insights from others as well.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

New blog

My friend and fellow anthropologist Dori Turnstall has just started a blog. She always has interesting things to say, and I think she will be taking it on the road with her as she tours Europe as a Marshall Scholar. Should be an interesting trip!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Medical compliance and social issues

There is a contest here to find interesting things patients do to increase their adherence to their drug regimens. That is of course the 6 million dollar question that the whole medical profession is asking, and there are even international conferences around it.

As an anthropologist, I find the more interesting question is why people are not compliant. My friend Ari Shapiro did an interesting study on this, noting that "Ethnography opens up the issue by entering the private space of pill-taking to understand the beliefs, relationships, and activities that contribute to patient (non-)compliance." The abstract for his paper is available at the EPIC website, but you have to be a member of Anthrosource to get the whole thing.

His study, as well as many articles in the popular media, point to the fact that compliance is about much more than remembering to take pills at the right time. Medications can make people feel awful, or look awful, or be unable to participate in important family events. Teenagers with cancer don't really believe they might die. The list goes on.

Interestingly, in my (admittedly very cursory) research, it looked like HIV/AIDS patients are a constituency which overall is very concerned with being compliant, but it is difficult because of all the cocktails and combinations of meds that must be taken at different times. I found several instances of people looking for community solutions (say text messaging each other) to help remember. I am not sure why this is different that other diseases (if in fact it is, or just a sampling error in my own research) but it is interesting nonetheless.

Ideal Anthropology program?

I was interviewed yesterday by a student at University of North Caroline Charlotte, as part of an applied anthropology class she is taking. An interesting assignment, I think, because the students both learn about what applied anthropologists are doing and practice interviewing and interaction skills. She told me the university is growing, and the anthro department is hoping to set up a Master's program, which would be great.

One of the questions she asked me was what course did I think was essential, if I were to set up an anthropology program. I couldn't give her one course, but I did give a description of my ideal program. Granted, I went through a strictly academic progam, so I lean that way--I do feel an ideal program should expose students to all four fields, but in such a way that they understand how they are related to each other, and that they understand both how they can be applied in the "real world" (what is the real world?) or they can pursue deeper academic reseach. I have to admit I am not sure who if anyone is doing that. There are some great academic programs, and some great applied programs (and many people who work on both sides), but it seems like for anthropology to have a strong future better integration than there is now.

15 seconds of fame

We had a visit from Senator Christopher Dodd last week. Always interesting to watch a politician at work. My politics are mostly in line with his, so I didn't have major objections to much of what he said (and in fact got my own moment in the press by asking a question). But it was fascinating to watch him talk and answer questions--he gave lengthly answers that managed to weave through multiple issues, so that even though the majority of the time was Q&A (as opposed to speech) he addressed all the major topics he wanted to speak to. And in some cases managed to answer questions without giving a definitive opinion, yet he was fairly outspoken on his stance on many things.

An interesting fact I didn't know was that his father, Thomas Dodd, was one of the prosecutors at the Nuremburg Trials.

Out of hibernation

Or at least that is a nice way of noting that I haven't been blogging in a while...And well winter does involve a different mode really. Perhaps I am just thinking about hibernation because I am reading Verlyn Klinkenborg's book Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The book is written from the perspective of the tortoise who lived in Gilbert White's garden in Selbourne, England in the 18th century. One of the many things White himself was fascinated by was the clockwork disappearance and reappearance of Timothy in fall and spring. I am a little biased, having had the opportunity to take a class from Klinkenborg when I was an undergraduate, but I would highly recommend anything he has written to anyone who loves reading excellent writing.

While we as humans don't hibernate (though sometimes I wish I could), I am not sure how well suited we are for colder climates where we do need to hide from the elements. Now that the weather is warmer, the only place my son (19 months old today!) wants to be is outside, and he objects when it is time to come in. We did evolve in Africa after all, and one only need to visit warmer climates to see how much of traditional life is lived outside--I write this of course at a cubicle removed from windows or doors...