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

Monday, October 10, 2005

Anthropology and advertising?

I read an interesting article on trend forecasting today. I've always found this fascinating (and wonder how much anybody checks later to see if the forecasters were right). The only thing that bothered me about this one, and this is not new, is the claim that what they do is like cultural anthropology. This is not a diss on advertising, marketing, trend forecasting, or any of the other fields that claim to be like anthropology--these folks to interesting work.

I am just annoyed at the claim itself. Granted, we anthropologists are not always good at advertising ourselves...in that we offer a holistic approach, and theoretical insight based on our training. So anybody who observes people is now an anthropologist. Or is it just that Americans are so used to sound bites that they don't understand the nuanced differences in anything?


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Innovative and Inspiring Places

Anand Chhatpar has put up a request for lists of innovative and inspiring places in the US on the BrainReactions blog. There is an interesting mix of places there, from creative labs to museums to the great outdoors. I added some of my favorite aquaria (I am apparently still on a fish thing) and some cool buildings:

Monterey Bay Aquarium
New England Aquarium
National Aquarium
Taliesen West
Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

Once I got going on structures, I really thought about innovative and inspiring places around the world. The first that popped into mind (probably because I was thinking about architecture) was Vienna--Art Nouveau, the Secessionist movement, Huntertwasser...Though now I could start going on about my favorite places around the world...


Friday, September 30, 2005

Gorillas and tools

Very excited to hear this morning about gorillas in the wild being observed using tools for a variety of things. One used a stick to test water depth before stepping in (nice photo here). That is not just tool use, it is pretty high level thinking, in my opinion. Once again, we are not alone...

On a side note, not quite as anthropological, I was also excited to learn this week that a live giant squid has been filmed. Don't think they use tools, but a reminder that quite a bit of science fiction is fact if you look below the waterline is a good thing.

Musing on blogging and not blogging.

Yikes. Over two weeks since I posted. Yes, yes plenty of excuses...a training course one week followed by my parents in town (baby's 1st birthday, we survived a year!), followed by a week in the UK at the People Inspired Innovation conference (which was great, by the way, and I think the presentations--mine included--will be posted soon so keep checking back). And then what felt like a nasty case of jet lag (only 5 hours?) in fact turned into a nasty virus--better now, thanks.

Anyway, during this lag I have thought about my blog...but not posted. Is it an obligation that I am not fulfilling when I don't post regularly? Or is is a comfortable chair to come back to and write when I have the chance, just like sometimes I get to curl up with a good book yet too often can't find the time?

Clearly I will not become an uberblogger anytime soon...and yet, I do like my little outlet.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Collaboration and Trust

I have been doing some background research on distance collaboration for the EPIC paper I am writing with Dina. A great deal of what I have been reading talks about the importance of trust in collaborative relationships. I suppose in some ways that is maybe a no-brainer, but I hadn't really thought much about it before and now I am thinking about it a great deal.

I do trust the people who I work with face to face every day because I know them, I know their work, and I know I can count on them (or in some cases I know where the weaknesses are so I can plan for that). And yes, I have at times worked with people who I don't trust, in that I don't have faith in the quality of their work. So how does trust develop in virtual relationships? Does it take more time? Does it take the same amount of baseline experience? Or do we take bigger leaps of faith?

I haven't really worked this out yet, but it is fun to be mulling around on.

More fish

Bought 3 new fish yesterday--a little herd (OK school) of neon tetras. They have survived the night. Fish count is now 5.

Friday, September 09, 2005

What to do?

It is hard not to feel helpless in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, especially from up here in the Northeast--the donations of money and goods I have made will make a difference, but it barely feels like it. Fortunately, all of my family (cousins) left New Orleans before the storm and are now all convened down in Texas. And, fortunately, though they too have lost much, they have means and connections to have apartments, etc...not part of the huge mass of people with nowhere to go.

It is interesting though because two different colleagues have asked me whether I would take people in to my house (because they themselves were considering whether it was the right thing to do, since they both have extra rooms). Obviously, I would take in family, or friends of family--I think anyone who had a connection to someone I know. I don't think I would take in a stranger (and of course the people who really need housing right now are strangers). Is this selfish or wrong?

I can't imagine what it must be like to lose everything (and I hope I never have to). And on top of that, people who have never left their home towns are being put on busses and planes to totally different parts of the country. I am glad we are all doing what we can to help, but the culture change will be yet another thing for many people to deal with.

There is a temptation to take an intellectual view of it--the National Science Foundation is already awarding grants for research on the aftermath of the hurricane. A long view is important, so we can handle such catastrophes better next time, but in the meantime there are so many people that need help now.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans

I am left without really knowing what to say here. I have family in New Orleans, who fortunately, all got out before the storm...of course we have no idea what, if anything, they have to go back to. And I guess personally the best word I can find is that I am unsettled--though somehow that word isn't strong enough. It is not like 9/11, where my world changed in a flash, but it is such a close to home reminder of our fragility. Not to downplay in any way last year's tsunami or the recent monsoon flooding in Mumbai, but yes the mental impact of a disaster in a place I know and on people I know is greater...distance does matter I guess.

As I watch the news come in, it is also just such a stark example of the best and worst. My sister lives in Houston (and once lived in New Orleans) and is one of the thousands of people there volunteering to get things set up and comfortable for refugees. And I have no idea how the Texas schools will in fact accomodate all the children, but it is something that they will find a way to do, because it has to be done...but at the same time I look at New Orleans itself and shots are being fired at rescue workers. Is it inevitable that we degenerate under such circumstances? I am fortunate in that I am not there experiencing that mental stress to find out, and I want all the best for the people who are there, though I know things will not be Ok for them for quite some time.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Human Animal

This past weekend the London Zoo put people on display (dressed in fig leaves for modesty) in order to "demonstrate the basic nature of man as an animal and examine the impact that Homo sapiens have on the rest of the animal kingdom."

Kind of good to remember that we are in fact just another part of the animal kingdom.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Blogs as focus groups

This month's Business 2.0 has a small article about Umbria Communications, which has developed software to troll blogs for product opinions. Interesting concept, and they seem to be making some good money doing it.

But, I am also not so quick to trash focus groups, or to consider blogs an equal replacement for them. While my background means I obviously have a great affinity for observational methods of user research, I try to approach projects keeping my entire toolkit in mind: that may be ethnography, interviews, tag-alongs, and yes even focus groups and surveys.

The thing to keep in mind each that each of these tools has a use (just like I tell my husband when he uses the wrong thing in the kitchen--like the time he used the vegetable brush to scour the grease off the vent). Focus groups, while vilified by some anthropologists, can be great if the group interaction will contribute to the desired outcome. They are not, however, a cheap replacement for 10 separate interviews or observations, since the nature of the data will be different. And so, I see the benefit of blogs to get feedback on games and new technologies--knowing that these are the comments of lead users, and often trailblazers. Though perhaps the bloggers should get some compensation? At least at a focus group you get $100 and some munchies.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Bulk email vs. bulk snail mail

Conversation just had over the cube wall with my coworker Darryl began with him asking me my perception of email I receive that says "Dear Alex" but continues with generic content--basically bulk email that has been "personalized" with my name (apparently he had just received one).

I gave a fairly generic answer, in that I see it as bulk mail, don't pay it much mind, etc. Then asked him. Darryl said it annoyed him when bulk emails use his name--it is a ruse and he sees around it. BUT, if a piece of bulk paper mail doesn't have his name, he feels it is rude, basically because it should.

So the perceptions of the two media are different, at least in his case and I imagine many others (I just throw almost all of them away, though slightly more amused when they get my name wrong). Others?

Culture and Perception

A recent study shows that Asians and Americans really do see the world differently, based on eye movement and what people focus on when they describe pictures. I didn't find this particularly suprising, and of course agree with the researchers that the differences are learned and cultural (though I am not sure I entirely believe their explanation for the origins of those cultural differences).

Americans focus on the foreground, or the most prominent object in a scene, while Asians take in the background and see the whole picture and how the object relate to one another. These particular differences forced me to reflect on my own perceptions as an observer and anthropologist--I would like to believe that I see that whole picture, but if I am honest, I probably do see that prominent bit first, then have to remember to register the background too.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Early Shoes

Must get over the death of my fish and back to anthropology--archaeology even! Research by Erik Trinkhous shows humans began wearing shoes 30-40,000 years ago, enabling migratory expansion into colder climates, something we apparently couldn't do if our tootsies froze.

And nonetheless I still find most shoes terribly uncomfortable. I miss Arizona where I could wear sandals year round (up here in New England my little toes do indeed get cold).

Another fish fatality

Well that's all three :-( Guess we will go to the pet store for more victims tomorrow.


Today I am reflecting more on ichthyology than anthropology. Our big event last weekend was setting up an aquarium--10 gallon, freshwater tank. Did a bit of research beforehand, mostly consisting of asking people with some existing knowledge what we should do, but arguably, not very much prior investigations, other than when I was a kid we had several aquaria in the house (not to mention dogs, turtles, birds, snakes--we were pretty well supplied with pets).

So, a week ago Saturday we got the tank, set it up, got the water in. Next day went to get fish, relying on the guy at the Petco who assured us our choices were OK for a starter tank. Get home, introduce them to the tank, Kurt decides to read up some more on our new friends. Learn one is in fact not such a friendly species and might torment the others--so back to the pet store for a fish exchange.

At that point, we did more web research, which I have to say is more confusing than anything else--a case of too much information and some of it conflicting. Main thing I took away--some people out there are way more into fish than I think I will ever be.

Everything is happy for a couple of days, until the first fish fatality. I know that this happens when a tank is starting, but I was truly somewhat upset--was a going to be a failure at being an adoptive fish parent? By the second fatality later in the week I was a bit less concerned, though since then every time I go downstairs I check to see if the last fish is still alive.

Anyway, the last fish was still swimming around this morning...maybe he will get more friends soon.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Social Value of Gossip

Seems I was prescient with yesterday's post that referred to gossip. See this article from today's New York Times for more on why it is, in fact good for us.

Did you hear...?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Stamps as signs

This article caught my eye today. Of course as a Pitney Bowes employee I pay attention to most things that have to do with mail. This one also hit a current side interest of mine, the symbolism of stamps, which I am researching in my oh so ample spare time.

With so many US soldiers overseas, their loved ones are using the placement of stamps on the envelopes to communicate messages back and forth. This is something that has always existed with stamps, but is not so common now that personal letters are going to email. However, war means more handwritten letters, and more messaging through stamps.

One of the more interesting bits is the fact that the messages aren't always clear to the recipients. One of the people quoted said,

"I think it took several letters before my girlfriend realized that the upside-down stamp wasn't a mistake."

Fun stuff. Oh yes, and PS (blatant trolling for information) I would love any info anyone has on stamps (or images on stamps) and their meaning.


This article was sent to me the other day by a co-worker, with a bit of a wink to a new form of user observation. The Jerk-O-Meter apparently analyzes how people are talking on cell phones, and uses that data to determine if they are really paying attention. If not, they might get a little reminder message...or in an alternate version, you could get a message telling you whether the person on the other end of the line is really tuned in.

Don't think it will replace anthropologists anytime yet, but I do wonder what it might do for relationships.

Community and Voyeurism

A couple of months ago a wrote about virtual communities, and mentioned a working moms bulletin board. My visits there are infrequent at best, and while I have been known to post, it is not often. But I recently realized that when I do navigate there, I am reading other people's problems...and while it is not exactly entertainment, but there is a bit of "thank goodness I don't have issues like these" going through my head. And a desire to read on to know the details behind these stories. I will also admit that this realization will probably make my visits to this bulletin board less frequent than they already are.

At the same time, I have a belief (based in my anthropological background, I like to say) that gossip is a natural part of human existence. Maybe that is what celebrities are good for--so we can gossip about people who aren't our friends, family, and co-workers. Maybe there is evolutionary advantage in gossip, as some argue, in the thought that knowing what the rest of your tribe is up to keeps you all safe and out of danger.

But in the end, I guess I will have to fess up to being a bit of a voyeur in the virtual world.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Cultural Geography or Anthropology

I just got around to reading David Brooks's New York Times column from a couple of days ago. In it he makes the argument that cultural geography (in his definition basically studying why people in different places are different) is now un-PC but in his opinion more and more necessary. He writes:

"Not long ago, people said that globalization and the revolution in communications technology would bring us all together. But the opposite is true. People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones. Old national identities and behavior patterns are proving surprisingly durable. People are moving into self-segregating communities with people like themselves, and building invisible and sometimes visible barriers to keep strangers out."

I don't think trying to understand this is limited to cultural geography (anthropology, anyone?) but it is an interesting stance, and makes me wonder. Which is more powerful, globalization or segregation? Or does it matter, when in fact both are probably equally strong? My dissertation looked at a smaller scale (pilgrimage) that many assumed was all about breaking down social boundaries, and I argued that yes, it does that, but it is also an arena where social boundaries get emphasized...so is this the way of our world, however large our geographic boundaries get?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

At home archaeology

One of the interesting things about visiting my parent's house is that you never know what you will find...if I ever wonder why I studied archaeology I just have to start excavating the bookshelves and counters of my childhood home. Don't get me wrong, the house is kept clean--just everything else is kept too (sorry Mom if you are reading this, but you know it is true)!

This time I found a letter my sister wrote home from summer camp in the early 70's. And on top of bookshelves in the den was an envelope, in my handwriting, filled with all the letters I wrote to my parents when I lived in England in the early 90's. Actually, I will probably never have such keepsakes--my coworker Deb, whose daughter is living in Japan this year, gets frequent emails but I don't think anything handwritten, so who knows how we will be communicating by the time Julian is old enough for such adventures.

Every time I visit I also debate what to bring back with me. I pull a pile of books off the shelf and usually put most of them back, or find an old toy or trinket, which I eventually decide is best left in Fort Worth, for another stroll down memory lane on a future visit.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Texas in a Texas

On vacation this week, staying with my folks in Fort Worth, TX. My mom very kindly babysat Julian overnight to give us a bit of "real" vacation, so we stayed at the Gaylord Texan (brought to you by the same people who created the Opryland hotel, where I attended a conference a few year ago.

Before we went a couple of friends in Fort Worth said they would be curious to see what I thought of the place as an anthropologist, since it claims to be a sort of indoor recreation of Texas...it is and it isn't. Yes, there are recreations of an oil rig, the Alamo, the San Antonio riverwalk, and Palo Duro Canyon. But the lush tropical vegetation inside isn't quite what you really see (and Texas does have several ecological zones, many with some very nice plants).

So, it is Texas in the same way Las Vegas hotels are the places they purport to be, admittedly without the casinos--which probably makes the Texan more appealing. We certainly had fun walking around, hanging out at the pool, sitting on our balcony overlooking the Lone Star Atrium--heck, for us it was a night out without the baby!

So I am not sure what to say anthropologically. It is odd to be in a totally climate controlled "outdoor" environment. At the same time, with outside temps at 100F and a red pollution alert, inside ain't so bad...

An observation open for interpretation, though. Like Las Vegas hotels, the staff at the Texan have name badges that also list their hometown by city and state. At breakfast, I noticed that the busboy's badge only said "Mexico." Hmm. Though later, I noticed the concierge was also from Mexico, but nametag said Ciuidad Juarez, Chihuahua.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Finally getting around to testing out Blogger's new photo tool. Much easier to upload pictures than with Hello, not that I really have many pictures to share (I figure most of the rest of the world isn't too interested in baby shots). So you get the red panda from the Syracuse zoo. Hey, it was this or the penguins.

All dressed up and no place to go

Well, not exactly. But I do now have a lovely webcam hooked up to my computer, along with VSkype and Spontania4IM. So all technologically up to date with my social tools...and yet who to talk to? Must get others hooked up as well I suppose...

Thursday, July 21, 2005


We have been watching Michael Palin's Himalaya. I've been a fan of his travel series since I lived in England while Pole to Pole was broadcast, and a friend also turned me on to Around the World in 80 Days (which is still the best of the lot).

Himalaya doesn't have the consistency of the journey of some of the other series. In the televised version he suddenly gets from one place to the next and you know you have missed something, though the advantage of the website is that you can read the full travel journal. However, I was totally enthralled, and after each episode I found myself online, either reading more details in the journal or looking up information on places and cultures I knew nothing about. There is a huge saltwater lake called Namtso at 15,000 ft. on the Tibetan Plateau? The Naxi in Yunan have a 1000 year old hieroglyphic language? Yes, I have spent a lot of time studying India (admittedly the south) but really know next to nothing about Nagaland. While the focus of the show is travel, the brief encounters with places and people did have me digging for more.

And of course there was a certain amount of envy...wouldn't that be a great trip to take (ok, not to mention with the full force of the BBC supporting you). But at the same time, it was very clear to me early on that with or without the BBC, as I woman I would not be able to recreate his journey completely. Most of the places it would not matter, but there were definitely stops where I would not have been welcomed.

Anyway, I recommend poking around and finding your own paths to pursue further. It's still a big world out there.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Recreating Babel

While my own anthropology training actually did not include much linguistics, I have always been fascinated with the subject. And, in the last two days I have seen two articles that sparked my thinking. The first article was on the Oneida Nation of New York, whose language was dying with the elders. The tribe worked with Berlitz to develop an intense curriculum, then paid several members to learn the language. Those first students then became the instructors for others, and they are working to teach the language in the schools (and, just as important, have the kids care about learning it).

The second article was about Ethnologue, which is an amazing resource on the world's languages. According to the latest edition, there are 6,912 living languages in the world--an increase over the 6,809 in the 2000 edition. An interesting contrast to the reported death of languages. Of course, Ethnologue is not so concerned with how many native speakers there are, and the lines between what is a dialect and what is a language is always a fuzzy one...And Ethnologue, having missionary origins, counts a language if it is distinct enough to need its own Bible translation. The article does point out the contradiction between a resource recording and presumably preserving languages, which is based in missionary work that does in its own way destroy cultures.

Race and perception

Interesting research project...An anthropology undergraduate bought paint samples in a range of shades from light to dark. She then had other students order them from lightest to darkest and place a dividing line between "white" and "black." She found that where people placed the line varied widely. She concluded that this was an indication of "the arbitrariness and subjectivity of racial categories."

One can certainly argue that paint and skin color are not necessarily comparable, but the results are interesting (though as an anthropologist I certainly don't need convincing about the arbitrariness and subjectivity of race). I wonder if one could repeat the experiment, with pictures of skin as opposed to paint swatches? I am sure the results would be the same, but what other impressions people carry with them change when you only see a small piece of a person?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tripping Down Memory Lane

My dad just sent me a Gilhoolie, a nifty device for opening jars we always had around the kitchen when I was a kid. He found it at the Vermont Country Store, and it of course came packed with a catalog.

I don't often take the time to go through catalogs, but its been a long week, and I finally got unpacked from all the trips, so I settled into a comfy chair and started to flip through. They have quite the eclectic mix...clothes (and underwear!) that your grandma and grandpa wore--even the rubber swim caps with big flowers on them. Oldies but goodies like Pears and Lifebuoy soaps. Candies from my childhood like banana splits and teaberry gum, and even Little Golden Books and magnetic Scotties.

I am currently feeling a great need to stop in one of their stores next time I am in Vermont...or perhaps even a special trip. Amazing how comforting that spark of distant recognition is!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Oh Canada

We snuck up to Ottawa for a couple of days last week as an interlude during our visit to my in-laws. We've really enjoyed taking vacations in Canada over the last few years--Can't deny the appeal of the exchange rate relative to the US dollar, but I think it is also nice to be able to drive yet still have managed to get to another country.

Anyway, we hadn't been to Ottawa before. We were suprised by how much it felt like Quebec City. Yes, they are both eastern Canadian cities, and yes, Ottawa borders Quebec province, but Quebec City is rather unique. Yet Ottawa captures some of the feel in the shops and sidewalk cafes and general feel (and Kurt asked why don't we have more sidewalk cafes here in the US--the weather isn't any better up there!)

It was also interesting to be in a city that really is focused around government. Washington DC is an example, but it is so structured around monumental architecture and a planned layout. Ottawa feels more organic, more European, but of course the European capitals are all cities with long histories and many other functions. I suppose Canberra is also a dedicated capital, but I haven't made it to Australia (yet!).

I would have like to have spent more than a couple of days. We mostly walked around, but it seemed like there were some great museums too...a place to return to.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Patriotism and Independence Day

Well I guess this one is happy Independence Day, for those of us in the United States and anyone living where they themselves would consider themselves to be free—I won’t presume to make that determination for others.

While I am not always happy with my government, or even some of my fellow countrymen and women, I am happy to be an American and do consider myself a patriot, in that I am proud of where I live, and the principles of our country. I don’t consider the definition of patriotism to be blind allegiance to one’s government—only a love of one’s homeland and a desire for it to be the best place it can be.

I have had the opportunity to live, work, and travel in many other countries and plan to continue to do so throughout my life. There are so many good things (and of course bad) everywhere I have been, yet I have never had a desire to permanently leave the US—perhaps simply because it is home. And I do consider myself lucky to have the freedoms that I do. There are so many places where my gender, religion, or political views would place many constraints on what I could do. I have never felt myself constrained and I know I am fortunate that I don’t fully comprehend what it means to be so constrained. I also know that not everyone in the US would be able to agree with the comments I have just made on my own behalf…but part of caring for my country is striving to help make it a place where everyone truly has the same freedoms.

I love a parade

Happy 4th of July (though by the time I write this it is the 5th of July some places, but anyway, I figure everyone had a 4th whether or not it was a holiday).

We took Julian to his first parade this morning. I suppose it was more for me than him, but he seemed to enjoy sitting on my lap and watching fire engines and marching bands (and not a few local politicians) go by. Something about parades always excites me.

Philadelphia, at least back when I lived there, was the parade capital. In addition to the justly famous Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day (an anthropological study in itself), it seemed like whenever we went downtown there was a parade down Broad Street. And of course there is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York—of course the best part of that is watching the balloons get blown up the night before north of the Museum of Natural History.

I actually got to be in a 4th of July parade in Oregon years ago the summer I was working for the Forest Service. I was Smokey Bear, and I have never been more popular in my life—all the kids wanted to hug me and talk to me. Around there, lots of jobs were dependent on logging, and since Smokey helps prevent forest fires, he is a pretty big deal. Of course, the same summer, the Forest Service wouldn’t allow Woodsy Owl out in public. Spotted owls were being declared endangered (thus limiting how much logging could be done, and thus cutting down on jobs), and Woodsy, happy symbol of non-pollution, had received death threats.

Assembly line on the flat world?

I’ve been reading The World is Flat, and last night I was struck with the thought that we may have created an international assembly line. At least in the history I’ve been taught, Henry Ford invented the assembly line as a way to mass produce his cars affordably. Every worker has one task, which they repeat over and over, but which they also become very proficient and efficient at—much more so than when the same workers are responsible for building all parts of an automobile or other machinery. However, the workers themselves are not very challenged, nor trained nor encouraged to build a large skill set. Friedman discusses how whatever the job is, it will be (or is) broken into its constituent parts, and sent to whoever in the world can do that job the best. Then, everything will be (or is) put back together again. I know the work is more complicated than assembly lines, but is there an analogy, or am I totally off base?

I am fortunate to work in an environment where even though I am an anthropologist, and presumably the expert in user observation and analysis, I also get to develop concepts, build prototypes and (yikes) build business models. Likewise, the engineers, designers, and MBAs I work with also participate throughout. Some feel it would be better if we each focused on our specialty, and in many corporate innovation groups that is exactly what happens. Maybe they are more efficient…but I wouldn’t be as challenged...

I don’t know what this means about globalization. I imagine those of us with creative skills, wherever we are located, will continue to be able to use those skills creatively in collaboration with others.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

CPB and other points of view

Kind of a continuation on the discussion of multiculturalism, extended to openmindedness...all the controversy here in the US over the supposed liberal bias of public broadcasting presents a lot to think about. It angers me to no end that taxpayer money was used (secretly) to hire a conservative consultant to analyze shows, and the results basically said that anyone who didn't explicitly agree with the Bush administration was liberal.

The whole "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude frightens me, living in a country where I would like to assume free speech, and a multiplicity of opinions and open debate are a given. I worry that too many people do not realize that the rights to debate are being eroded.

At the same time the question of bias does force me to evaluate my own biases. Do I think of some programs as even handed because they do represent my own viewpoint? I'd like to think not, and that I can detect the biases, knowing what I agree and disagree with. But how do you judge a truly unbiased perspective? And is there even such a thing?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Kids Day and India

Last Friday was bring your kid to work day at Pitney Bowes. It's all very fun, begins with breakfast and a magic show, followed by tours for the older kids, then a big outdoor picnic. I was a tour stop, "Let's Travel to India." They put the kids in groups by age, since some of the stops are better for older or younger ones...I ended up with groups ranging from about 8-13 years old. It was fun but exhausting.

I figured the point was more fun than educational, so pretty much I set up a slide show to talk about the fact that we invent stuff by understanding how people live and work, and asking what they knew about India. Answers: lots of people, cows...Showed them pics of cellphones, malls and offices and lots of things that look pretty similar in India as in the US, then pictures of things that look different. Fun to see their reactions. They all noticed the Subway in the mall, and they all recognized the well in the village and understood what it was for and that the villages don't necessarily have running water or consistent electricity. Some didn't believe the monkey wasn't in a zoo...

Tried to get them to think about what stuff they might invent for India (power lines and water pumps were popular answers, didn't necessarily expect them to think so broadly). And also talked about other countries they have visited. What was so nice though is how open minded most kids are. They were into seeing pictures of another country, could see the similarities and differences, but at the same time were somewhat unconcerned about the differences. I mean, they thought it was cool and interesting, but not weird or "why do I care."

I don't know...hit them with anthropology and other cultures at an early age and maybe we'll have less problems in the world? Or maybe they just liked the sodas and cookies in the back of the room.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Grafitti Archaeology

Have been exploring Grafitti Archaeology, a nifty site that won a Webby award. It won in an art category, but since I am trained as an archaeologist, I think it is fair to call it archaeology, since the site uses pictures to uncover the accretions of time--from present through the past to a sometimes "pristine" (non graffitoed) site (though not always).

Some of the sites change over a relatively significant amount of time, some fairly quickly over a few days...a social and visual history captured in photos. Another interesting thing is that a flickr community has built up around it, too.

Whistling languages

Heard on NPR the other day...a story about Yupik in Alaska, who have a whistling language, apparently the only one (or at least the only one still in use) in the US. There are a few others around the world, and they evolved as a way for people to communicate across distance, since a whistle can be heard from further away than a voice. The Yupik whistles mimic sounds in the Yupik language. The women being interviewed whistled in English, to give an example, though English did not seem as amenable to translation as Yupik.

Anyway, a fun anthropological story. There is such great advantage to us being able to communicate across shared languages (or shared language, yes we English speakers have it easy) and yet at the same time it seems so important to me that the diversity of languages remain, probably because they are also a symbol of the diversity of culture and the diversity of humans.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


I heard an interview this weekend with Michael Kinsley, editorial and opinion page editor of the The Los Angeles Times on their revamped editorial page and wikitorials. I have to admit while the community concept of the wikitorial intrigued me, I was not sure I totally agreed with his logic. Kinsley noted that in the early days of newspapers, editorials were where the publisher of the paper got his (yes, always his in those days) chance to voice his opinion to the world. Kinsley feels that this is largely irrelevant in today's world, where one conglomerate publisher may own many newspapers, with different editorial opinions. Thus the printed "op ed" pages should lean more to op than ed, and anyway, unsigned editorials carry less weight with readers than signed opinions (even if you have never heard of the opinion writer). And, the readers should have an opportunity to voice their "eds." Ultimately, the panel of editors that write editorials should perhaps even have their opinions influenced and minds changed by those community opinions.

All well and good and yes I think the wikitorial itself is cool. But I am not so sure that the editorials are irrelevant. Maybe this is my bias...I don't mind unsigned editorials, and I like that there is an area that is the voice of the paper. It lets me know what I am reading and where the paper is coming from (even though the editorial writers don't determine the content of the rest of the paper, helps to know where the slant is coming from).

Anyway, I guess my rant is more about editorials...others have been writing on the concept of wikitorials themselves, though interestingly, the wikitorials have so far not lasted long...when I checked it today their was this message:

Unfortunately, we have had to remove this feature, at least temporarily, because a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material.

Thanks and apologies to the thousands of people who logged on in the right spirit.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Statistically improbable phrases

I am undoubtedly way behind the curve on this, but I just came across Amazon.com's statistically improbable phrases:

Amazon.com's Statistically Improbable Phrases, or "SIPs", are the most distinctive phrases in the text of books in the Search Inside! program. To identify SIPs, our computers scan the text of all books in Search Inside. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.

So, I just had to play around...

spurious elements from The Tourist
our unfortunate client from The Complete Sherlock Holmes
waxwing slain from Pale Fire

Makes me want to compose my own story--I had to remove the spurious elements from our unfortunate client's story; he kept referring to the waxwing slain by a bird.

Tourism and Manufactured Experiences

We went to Baltimore this past weekend to visit my sister in-law and catch up with an old friend of mine who was visiting her sister. Baltimore has many of its attractions concentrated in the Inner Harbor, which used to be abandoned factories and warehouses from when the harbor was a shipping center. In the 1970's, it started to be redeveloped with Harborplace a festival marketplace much like Fanueil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York City. It also became the home of the National Aquarium, which, though we choked on how high the entry prices have gone, is pretty amazing if you are a fish fan.

During the day on Saturday we went to the Aquarium and a nearby children's museum, and I was mostly focused on catching up with my friend Jen and keeping Julian entertained. But Kurt and I went back to the Inner Harbor after dinner to walk around since we figured it would be cool by the water (and my wonderful sister in-law had offered to babysit).

We were amazed at how packed it was. Kurt commented on the number of different languages we heard as people strolled by...In one area a crowd had gathered to watch African dance. Inside the mall the fudge makers at a fudge shop attracted attention with mini performances. People were gathered on their boats moored to the docks. All while we walked past shops and attractions remarkably similar (and yet not the same, exactly) as those in other cities.

I couldn't help thinking of Dean MacCannell's book The Tourist, which is a structural view of tourism, and argues that tourism is a way of contructing social reality, (and tourist sites, are part of the way a society structures itself). I also wondered to what degree my entertainment that evening was manufactured. Certainly the environment was planned and designed, and bears a striking resemblance to Fanueil Hall (not to mention that the Baltimore Aquarium and the New England Aquarium were both designed by the Cambridge Seven). But it was different, and not only because some of the shops sold crab souvenirs as opposed to lobsters. Was it the African dance? Was it the Finnish minelayer docked in the Harbor? Was it the fact that many of the people wandering about were clearly not tourists, but locals?

So I am still pondering this fine line between "real" and "constructed." Sometimes we forget that even those experiences that we interpret as real or authentic at the time are in fact constructed...for instance pilgrimage sites and routes are often quite planned to create a particular experience (well my own interpretation anyway, for more see my dissertation, if you want a long read).

Thursday, June 09, 2005

How do anthropologists blink?

We (at Pitney Bowes) just had a visit from Patrick Whitney and some of his students (and recent graduates) from the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. The visit itself was the culmination of a design course we sponsored, but we also had some interesting conversations about other work. Pat and others at ID have a project called Design for the Base of the Pyramid. Most of the research has been conducted remotely in India. The ID folks have set up templates and sent them to various researchers in India (social workers, architects, and MBAs, all new to observational research) with instructions to gather information in the slums of Mumbai.

One of Pat's goals is to develop reusable frameworks for research and analysis...I think this is interesting, though I guess as an anthropologist I am skeptical whether detailed frameworks can really be reusable across very different projects (though I will be watching what they come up with, and one thing I have learned is that designers sometimes get more attention on their research because we anthropologists don't always know how to communicate what we do as well visually).

Anyway, these templates have enabled people without ethnographic experience to gather data that Pat and his team have been able to use to design from. It is undeniably a quick and inexpensive way of doing field research. But I also wonder how much is lost...when I am in the field I see things that spark my interest, and spur me to go deeper or change direction...it is based on experience and instinct.

One of my coworkers, an extremely inventive engineer (who is also a fan of Triz, where I think this thought came from) suggested that it must be possible to come up with a decision tree that would enable even inexperienced researchers to make those same observational decisions.

I hope I am not just being defensive, but I think I do bring something to my work that can't just be transferred to others. I started reading Blink the next day, and really hooked into the idea that there are things we thin slice and detect instictually, without necessarily being able to explain. And those of us with specific expertise "think without thinking" in our areas of expertise and should embrace it...made me feel better.

I still think I am pretty good at what I do ;-)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Tipping Point, storytelling, and good communication

I just finished The Tipping Point, which I really enjoyed. I doubt I have much new to add to the reams that has been blogged about Malcolm Gladwell's thesis, so I don't plan to comment on that. I did however try to think about why I liked the book so much (and immediately launched into Blink).

He does have a pretty interesting argument for how and why social epidemics happen. But I think what is just as important, if not more so, is the fact that he is very good at communicating. For one, he is a good, engaging writer. Knowing how to put a sentence (or a paragraph or a chapter) isn't enough though. He engaged and convinced me because he built the book on stories. Not just a compilation of anecdotes, but verifiable, detailed stories, with names mentioned and all. Taken together, he used the individual stories to build one coherent narrative in the book as a whole. It seems like a small thing, but it is pretty powerful. I try to think about my overall narrative (or, "what's the point,") when I write and present professionally and it isn't easy to do, especially since I am interested in so many things and see the connections between them. But to make others see the connections, one strong storyline is apparently all you need.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Dolphin Culture

I always find these articles about learned and taught behavior in other animals fascinating. This article is on a group of dolphins that protect their noses with sponges and teach their young to do so also...would love to see a picture. [update, I found a picture here]. I am also not one of the anthropologists who has officially entered the debate as to whether humans are the only species that have "true" culture...there are undeniably some differences in our behavior and that of other animals, but also quite a few similarities. And, if primatology is a branch of anthropology (another thing I am not really sure of my personal views on, though I was in graduate school with plenty of primatologists), no reason not to look beyond the primates to understand ourselves.

Primates themselves do provide plenty of interesting fodder. Yesterdays' New York Times Magazine had an article by Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt (authors of Freakonomics), discussing Keith Chen's research with capuchins. Chen's research indicates that as far as economic decisions go, we aren't so far removed from monkeys...or maybe they are not so far removed from us. The capuchins learned to buy food, steal, gamble (irrationally, just like humans), and pay for sex. Hmm.

Adventures in the wonderful world of Microsoft

So when I turned on my home computer this evening, I got an error messsage I hadn't seen before, something about a Generic Host Process...I also got a message asking if I wanted to send an error report to Microsoft. I did. Suprise, when I opened my brower (or maybe it opened for me)? I got a screen saying there was an update for Windows XP that would prevent this error, but really, I ought to validate my copy of Windows first. Click again. Download a little program called GenuineCheck.exe. (OK, now I am just intrigued).

Ran the program. Got a nifty little validation number which I was told to paste into the appropriate form in my browser. Click again to continue. Now I get a message that my browser is not compatible...Oh yeah, I run Firefox as a default, Microsoft never likes that. So I open IE and paste the address bar in from the previous screen. Click continue. This time I get a similar message but it kindly offers to have me pull out my CPU to find my Windows product key which is pasted on the side somewhere. Not really wanting to do that, I go back to Firefox, which had offered a download as an alternative. I download and run legitcheck.hta. Guess what? A screen opens up with, you guessed it, exactly the same instructions to pull out my CPU and boxes to type in the product code. OK, at this point I am committed anyway, so I do it.

Once all the numbers are in and properly verified, I get to download and run yet another program, this time it is the update. At the end, I am asked if I want to restart now or later. I chose later. Interestingly, Microsoft chose now, since my computer shut down and restarted...

Once restarted ZoneAlarm no longer recognizes programs I have previously OK'ed.

I had the impression that I could have downloaded the fix without validating, but I was curious. I felt like Microsoft was just collecting information on me...must be an easier way to do it!

Anyway, here I am now.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Blogs as Nodes of Exchange

I had a great conversation today with Austin Henderson, who (despite the out of date online bio) is our Director of Research Strategy (and otherwise has a fairly illustrious career in HCI).

Austin is leading a small group to tackle our internal communications issues...both how can teams work better together, and how can others have a view into what is going on in other teams. I just joined this group, which has been meeting for a few weeks and consists mostly of engineers. So far Austin has set up some distribution lists, so people can email groups more easily, and they are looking into knowledge managment/collaboration tools (we do have Intraspect, which I, and many others hate, looking toward Sharepoint). And we have a wiki which can be the "anvil" for forging documents.

Today, Austin asked us if anything was missing, and I mentioned that there wasn't a conversation space. I and brought up the blog my team in the US has been using to collaborate with Explore Research which is working with us in India. He is not yet a blog user, so we talked a bit on why the India blog was different than email, and it forced me to think about the way the tools are used and how it feels. I know I posted things to the blog that I wouldn’t have bothered to email.

Anyway some of what emerged: You are “in the blog.” The fact that it is a place makes it different from email conceptually. Also, we talked about pull vs. push. For instance, while I thought the PostSecret blog I talked about in my previous post would be of interest to others in my division, I didn't email it to all 70 people because I didn’t want to spam them…I blogged it her and emailed the link to some folks I thought would be particularly interested.

I initially called the blog a “conversation space” but Austin noted that only one person creates the initial article, then it is commented on. He said the blog was instead was an “exchange space” since it is “a place where you come together to exchange articles.” IM, on the other hand, allows both parties to creating the “article.” I think IM is closer to a true (though perhaps abbreviated) conversation, while it is a Wiki that allows the users to negotiate content.

Anyway, there are lots of blog postings out there about blogs as conversations, blog as exchange put a new slant on it for me. As an anthropologist, my thoughts now turn to gifting...

Mail as Entertainment?

I was excited to learn about PostSecret, for so many reasons. It is a very basic blog on which postcard confessions are posted weekly. People must send their confessions on a 4x6 postcard, so some effort and thought is required to confess.

The public art aspect of the postcards themselves is great, and oooh...the anthropological study that one could do from these collections (since I am an archaeologist by training, artifacts have great appeal).

I have to admit it really attracted my attention because it combines mail with with a website. I do work for a company that is all about mail (believe it or not mail volumes are going up in this digital age, at least in the US, though not 1st class mail). So in my group at Pitney Bowes we do sometimes talk about what would make mail more entertaining, more exciting...to me this qualifies.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Class and Consumerism

The New York Times has been running a very interesting series on class in America. Yesterday's installment, When the Jones Wear Jeans, talked about the fact that it is no longer easy to tell who is wealthy and who is poor by the things people buy. Credit has made expensive goods accessible to those who cannot afford them, and global advertising has made those items desieable. In the past, people competed with "Jones" in their own neighborhood...in other words, their own social and economic class. Now "luxury" is within sight of all (if not within budget). Likewise the rich may dress down, but distinguish themselves in the services they can afford and buy...frequent manicures, facelifts, nannies, exclusive vacations.

Interestingly, yesterday's Times also had an article (in a completely different section) about how American teenagers want (or need, to the teens) more and more expensive techie gear--iPods, DVD players, fancy cell phones. Since the teens themselves do not work, they pester their parent for the stuff, and often get it. So we are apparently breeding this level of consumerism in people with no incomes whatsoever...some parents did say no, or made the kids choose between items. But the overall picture makes it look gloomy on kids learning value and tradeoffs and affordability. Sometimes Kurt and I feel like we have less stuff (not that we are lacking) than some of our peers...but at the same time we pay off our credit cards every month.

With my interest in developing emerging markets, I do occassionally worry that we are working on breeding the same type of consumerism in other countries, where it isn't affordable. (I can take a bit of a moral high ground since my company is primarily B2B, not B2C, but still...). I'd like to think we are creating and marketing things people really do need, which will eventually help them economically. Hopefully we won't create a world full of people running on overextended credit just so they can buy fancy American goods.

Friday, May 27, 2005

More new perspectives for innovation

Recently posted at NextBillion.net, a post on the BRINQ Workshop:

"BRINQ is a venture based on a single powerful belief: The world's 4+ billion poor represent a huge untapped source of innovation! Among these billions are geniuses, innovators and entrepreneurs waiting to be discovered, local equivalents of Einstein, Edison, and Ford. Their strong and varied cultural perspectives mean a different way of looking at the world, a different way of solving problems, and a different type of innovation. When it comes to innovation, different is a must! Plus you'd be hard pressed to find a more entrepreneurial bunch with stronger incentives to succeed.

BRINQ seeks to sow and gather the innovations of the world’s "poor", focusing less on the traditional invention of technology and more on the innovation of utility, the novel and unexpected ways in which people use technology. Our primary focus is on innovation in toys and play (we ask the toy industry, Where are all the children?), but we also emphasize systems to enable and propagate all types of innovation."

The group is about to go to Kenya for a pilot to figure out how multinationals can collaborate with the poor to create new business opportunities. There are some cool ideas and thought on their blog...most recently innovating around business cards.

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

The call for submissions for the 1st Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) has just gone out. Here is the info:

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC)
November 14-15, 2005
Microsoft Corporation Conference Center
Redmond, WA

Introducing the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC). This conference aims to bring together people who are actively thinking about the theoretical and methodological development of ethnography in industry practice. We want to draw participants who are both working in industry, as well as those who consult or collaborate with industry. We are aiming to create a collaborative venue where those practicing their ethnographic training in the corporate setting can benefit from mutual support and sharing information.

The theme for this year's conference looks at understanding "sociality" from an ethnographic perspective as applied to industry. The collective nature of humans is often over looked in much of the research by industry. Ethnographic understandings, however, frequently point to the importance of the collective nature of people. We will be seeking papers that address methods, theory and innovative practices around the theme of sociality, as well as workshops of interest to the community. Call for paper abstracts is open until is June 17, 2005 and the call for posters is open until September 1, 2005.

This conference will be limited to 200 people and participation will be on a first come, first serve basis beyond the accepted papers. The registration link can be reached via the website http://www.epic2005.com, or can be reached directly through https://secure.aaanet.org/epic/. Special thanks to AAA for sponsoring registration.

Conference Fees:
General - $100
NAPA members - $75 (National Association of Practicing Anthropology)
Students - $50

Further information can be found at:

ken anderson & Tracey Lovejoy (co-organizers)
ken.anderson@Intel.com & traceylo@microsoft.com
Advisory Council: Jeanette Blomberg, Alexandra Mack, Rick Robinson, Nina Wakeford, Christina Wasson
This year's conference is jointly sponsored by: Intel & Microsoft

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Student brain trusts

Thinking about BrainReactions, which I talked about in my last post, made a connection in my mind to the Roosevelt Institute, which is advertising itself as "the nation's first student think tank." The group started at Stanford but apparently now has branches at several other American universities and is trying to get affiliates in other countries.

Their argument about the value they bring seems to be that students an underutilized resource, even though they spend their time, well, thinking. I'll be interested to see what kind of impact they have on policy thinking. Undergraduates often don't have enough knowledge of the "real world" (at least I didn't), but they do have the time and freedom to just think, and may not be as constrained by experience of what does and doesn't work.

Now I am wondering if I think I know more now than I did when I was an undergraduate, or if I thought I knew then...certainly the future depends on engaging the next generation though.

Killer innovations

I just go this link from Anand Chhatpar, who was a co-op in the Concept Studio for a couple of summers while he was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Anand wrote: "The VP and CTO of HP, Phil McKinney, is an innovation guru and runs an insightful Podcast called Killer Innovations that you may want to check out: http://www.killerinnovations.com." His most recent podcast includes reflections on the Role of Scifi in innovation, with a focus on Philip K. Dick.

Of course Anand also sent the link to advertise himself--his compay BrainReactions was the subject of a recent podcast. BrainReactions brings together students to brainstorm on behalf of clients, bring in points of view that perhaps we oldsters (I'm not that old)! don't have. Although we work in interdisciplinary teams, and also include our customers in product development, I think it is interesting to think about being innovative in how we bring in new perspectives that force us to shift our paradigms.

By the way, am I the only one without an iPod yet?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

My colleague Jill Lawrence sent me this link to an article about Anthropology and Counterinsurgency. Her comment was "Long, but interesting. Kinda scathing. Somewhat true, but definately misleading. Partially informed, partially uninformed. Raises a lot of interesting issues."

Indeed it does. The starting point is the fact that anthropological knowledge could have made a great deal of difference in how the US government has handled the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq. It also goes through a history of 20th century anthropologists who have aided government intelligence, but notes (and chastises) the profession for being ethically opposed to helping covert operations, and being too caught up in postmodernism to see the importance and relevance of such contributions. The article briefly notes the fact that most in the US government and military have a somewhat derogatory view of the field. (Whew. Keep in mind that is my one paragraph summary of a 14 page article).

Where to begin? I was intrigued from the beginning because I have had many conversations with colleagues about the cultural missteps that have been made in Iraq. And yet, at the same time, I am not personally inclined to work for the Department of Defense. Yes, a better cultural understanding might help soldiers deal with these situations better...but in my view a better cultural understanding might avoid these messes in the first place and I have the impression that is a message the government is not yet willing to hear.

I also know (having experienced it while I was on the board of the American Anthropological Association) that post-modernism did take over a big branch of cultural anthropology in the 1990's. In fact, many mainstream anthropologists (especially archaeologists and biological anthropologists left the AAA because the journal was edited by postmodernists for a few years. And I know that the majority of American anthropologists are in academia (or desperately trying to find a job there), despite the growing number of practitioners.

I don't necessarily dispute what is presented in this article, but I guess I am not sure what to say to it either. I would rather see my government treating other cultures appropriately (by not bombing them, maybe?). But I would not want to feel like a contributor to the war or other activities I am opposed to, and, perhaps more importantly, I am not sure they would truly listen to, and act on, the anthropological point of view.

So, what is our role in influencing government? It has taken many years for us to have an accepted role in influencing business...maybe the issue is to start lobbying from the outside, becoming more mainstream in our voice so we are listened to?


Yet another book on my list to read is Freakonomics. I did see Levitt on the Daily Show a couple of weeks ago, and he seems to take an almost anthropological view of economics (well that is not so suprising, they are both social sciences, and economics is pretty important to they study of humans...actually when I wrote my dissertation I was suprised to suddenly find I had written about economics).

Anyway, he looks at everyday life and explains why conventional wisdom is often wrong, at least when viewed statistically. He also has a pretty interesting blog (which can be nicely read in small chunks, not as intimidating as that pile of books).

Monday, May 23, 2005

Office culture and the limits of applied anthropology

I just read an interesting article from the Financial Times titled Office Culture. It is one of the many articles that seem to come out each year noting that, gee, anthropologists don't just do their fieldwork in the jungle anymore. Coming from a British publication, it is a bit more introspective on the ethics of applied work than I find American publications tend to be.

There is actually lots of interesting info (too much to talk about) but I was disturbed by the comment of one of the consultants they interviewed. He noted, "What we try to do is describe what is happening, but we don't present solutions. We let the company decide that."

Perhaps it is because I work in design and innovation, but I believe that part of the value we can bring as anthropologists IS in offering solutions, not just observations. What is observation without interpretation, and isn't a solution a form of interpretation?

A few years ago, when I was entering the applied world, I did a bunch of informational interviews. One lead at a design firm was very polite to me, but noted that they were not interested in hiring anthropologists anymore because based on their experience, the anthropologists did not know what to "do" with their observations.

So, if we are going to practice applied anthropology, in my view, we should really apply it...Anyway, I recommend the article!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

People Inspired Innovation

The fourth People Inspired Innovation Conference will be held in Essex September 21-23. From the website: "PII provides a forum to discuss the design of better products and services through understanding the needs of people. In addition, it looks at how the knowledge gained from understanding people should provide a basis for informing public and corporate strategy." I will be giving a presentation on how we work with the business units to innovate solutions that work for the customers and Pitney Bowes.

The conference is hosted by Chimera, a research group that spun off from BT a few years ago. They are now associated with the University of Essex, and the combined academic/consulting research they do gives them an interesting perspective.

I went to PII 3 a couple of years ago, and it was a great experience--one of those few conferences where every talk was worth listening to. Even if you can't attend the conference, I recommend checking the website from time to time as it is updated with the abstracts and presentations. Most of the PII 3 presentations are available online as well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Exploration and discovery (and interpretation?)

As an anthropologist, I like to think I am an expert (or at least experienced) in exploring the world and being open to discovering all it has to offer and seeing the different angles. Isn't that what we are trained to do?

But watching Julian (who is 8 months old today) makes me think we are in fact trained out of exploration. He has been crawling for about 2 weeks, and it is interesting to watch him disover the world that has suddenly opened up to him. Everything is fascinating--some things more than others of course--but it is all an opportunity to look, touch, taste, and do it all again. This morning he kept coming back to the same block, picking it up and turning it around, each time there was something new for him. At what point do we start to assume we "know" the basics of the world around us?

I think what my training and experience really give me is a perspective. Presumably I do notice "more," or at least different things in the field than my non-anthropologist coworkers. But I hope the value I bring is in my interpretation of those observations--be it holistic or comparitive or theory based or whatever catch phrase I wish to apply to it. And of course my experience and knowledge of the world and workpractice figure into those interpretations, and provide additional value.

But wouldn't it be nice to still be able to find a whole universe to explore in a simple block?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Dina's post on conversational blogging got me thinking about online conversations in general. My first thought was of the etiquette of conversations in general...or in fact the etiquette of being conversational. The anthrodesign listserve recently received a post that was a link and not much else...the poster was quickly chastised for not providing context. What was needed was both a reason to follow the link, and a basis to have a continuing conversation about it.

But another interesting thing to me is the fluid nature of conversations. Just as in a face to face conversation, where all of a sudden you may stop and say "how did we get on this topic" because an interesting trail of connections has been followed, I see the same thing happening on line. Message boards where the initial post sparks side conversations or new trails and connections.

Speaking of talking and conversations, there is Conversation Cafe, which organizes hosted conversations at coffee shops in the US (unfortunately none in my area). Of course maybe there is a comment on our life in the US that we need someone to organize a conversation...?

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Thoughts on community (Part Three-Innovation)

I haven't gotten too far into this yet, but at work we have been talking about communities of innovation. Obviously there is Open Source, and a relatively long history of that. Eric von Hippel of MIT has written extensively about lead users and the fact that innovation stems from where it is needed economically. I've downloaded his most recent book Democratizing Innovation, but haven't had a chance to read it yet.

He begins by stating, "Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others."

Interesting thesis. Especially interesting for those of us who work in user centered innovation, on the belief that by gaining a deep insight into the user experience we (the manufacturers) can create superior solutions. Actually, I think there is room for both. The users can develop exactly what they want, but I would like to continue to believe that our ethnographic insights can lead us to develop what the users didn't realize they wanted or needed.

Eradicating Poverty Through Profit

The World Resources Institute sponsored a conference on Eradicating Poverty Through Profit last December. I was unable to attend, but a couple of my coworkers did and found it extremely stimulating. The conference operated on the underlying philosophy that large companies do have a role to play in development, by providing products and services to "bottom of the pyramid" markets. While there is interesting ethics involved in profiting from the poor, I think that they also have an interesting approach, in that large companies are going to be much more interested in profit than charity. They have just set up a website to continue the conversation at www.nextbillion.net.

A caveat--I did try to sign up for a password for login access and haven't received it yet. However, there is a lot of information available on the regular site, and there is an RSS feed.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

New Social Tapestries Website

I just got an email that Social Tapestries has a new website. Social Tapestries is a research program which focuses on "the potential benefits and costs of local knowledge mapping and sharing." The program is run by Proboscis, which is headed by Giles Lane. I met Giles a couple of years ago at the People Inspired Innovation conference in Essex, where he gave an interesting talk on the Urban Tapestries project--lots of interesting stuff on how people experience cities communally (London in particular) and some neat methods that they use. Lots of cool stuff on both websites. Check out the Diffusion ebook generator.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Thoughts on community (Part Two-Virtual)

Now that I am blogging that now involves me in a particular realm of cyber-community. I can't help thinking how many communities there are, and wondering what makes a community a community.

Being a new mom, I sometimes read a working moms bulletin board. I find it interesting to see what other women are worried about, and occasionally post to answer a question, but I personally do not feel connected to a "community" there. In fact one of the things that is interesting to me is the fact that there is so much diversity--women who want to be working, women who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet but would rather be home, women in unstable relationships and those happily married. Despite these differences, it is clear from the posts that many of the women do feel it is community and the board is a place of safe refuge--a home even, as per my last post.

But I wonder is it one community of "working moms" or in fact many communities with overlapping memberships? And in fact is this the reality of any "community" made up of more than a handful of people?

Thoughts on community (Part One-Home)

As a new blogger and anthropologist, thinking about community is kind of hard to avoid. While my academic and professional research has often revolved around various forms of community, my personal communities have generally revolved around people I know face to face.

Kurt and I still miss Arizona, I think because we felt part of a community (or really, several communities) there. Now, of course, many of those people who were part of our world have also moved away, though many are still there...and all in touch through email and cyberspace (is this a virtual community of the modern version of pen pals? More on cyberspace in the next post).

Although Boston is one of my favorite places (I went to university there), we never really felt "at home" during the two years we lived there. While we had friends, we didn't feel we had a community there.

With as much as I love the activity and dynamism of cities, I never imagined living in suburban Connecticut, let alone feeling settled and comfortable...yet I do. I work with great people, enjoy my friends, and have wonderful neighbors who we actually talk to. But maybe it would not have felt like home 10 years ago when I was at a different stage in my life--the community might not have been right. Is home where the community is?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Flat World

One of the next books on my list is Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. Friedman is a columnist with the New York Times who spent a lot of time last year in Bangalore. I read his columns while he was there, and some excerpts from the book. His overall thesis seems to be that since there are intelligent, skilled people throughout the world, and broadband has made global interconnectedness real, the skills needed to do almost any work can be found anywhere, and employed from anywhere.

There is a message for those of us in the US about education and skill training, but I also think there are some exciting possibilities. Rather than worry about how jobs might go overseas, I like thinking about how we work collaboratively with colleagues around the world. For the last year, I have been working on a project with Dina Mehta of Explore Research and Consultancy in India. The flatness of the world has enabled my company to conduct a long term research project in another country, combining Explore's cultural knowledge and our knowledge of our business (and a bit of outsider view into Indian culture and workpractice doesn't hurt either).

Dress for Success

My coworker Erica, who has an MBA, just lent me her copy of Dress for Success. It's not necessarily a book I would have picked up on my own, I think I probably mentally placed it in a class with Color Me Beautiful or other such beauty advice. However, Erica's selling point to me was that Molloy did a lot of surveys and observations of the interactions (read success) women had depending on what they were wearing--very anthropological. I started reading it last night, and I think I will enjoy looking at it through that perspective. Of course that also makes me wonder how well his particular principals of dress apply in other countries and other cultures.

It is also interesting to me how often my colleagues who are not social scientists are the ones who remind me to look at my own world through the anthropological lens. When my son was born, an engineer I work with noted what a great experience it would be for me as an anthropologist to be able to watch him develop and how it would give me insight that perhaps he didn't have when his own children were small. It's funny how despite the fact that my vocation is observation and insight, it is easy to forget to sometimes take that outsider's view of my own life.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Well I really won't start at the very beginning. I am currently happily ensconced as a Workplace Anthropologist at Pitney Bowes in the Advanced Concepts and Technology division in Shelton, Connecticut.

I have a PhD in anthropology from Arizona State University. Through graduate school, I worked at the Archaeological Research Institute in Tempe, Arizona. They also host ArchNet, a very cool compendium site for archaeology.

Some other places I've worked:

Strategic Intelligence Group of Fort Worth,Texas (my hometown).
InContext Enterprises of Concord, Massachusetts (yes, I have moved around...addresses have also included Philadelphia and York, England, and that does not include times I've spent in the field).

Some stuff I wrote while at InContext:

What's an archaeologist doing at a design firm?

Innovation or Market Research?

Using Video in Paper Prototypes: Reaping the benefits of paper prototyping when the product includes multimedia

I have been actively involved in the American Anthropological Association for many years, and am currently on the board of the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA).


A couple of years ago I organized a conference session on storytelling as a means to communicate anthropological findings in non-academic environments. Storytelling is central to anthropology as a discipline—not only do we all study some aspect of human story, the stories of the cultures we study are key to our understanding of them. Stories become mechanisms for collaboration and change, as well as carriers of history. But we don’t always stop to think about the stories we tell, even though anthropologists regularly use storytelling as a communication device. In order to be relevant in settings dominated by non-anthropologists, we must not only pass on the data we have gathered, but convey its importance and convince decision makers in business, design, development, public policy, environment, and a myriad of other fields. Constructing these stories involves editing and carefully choosing what to relay to our audience. Delivering the stories involves performance on many scales and with the help of tools. Stories are told in meetings, in the media, and in the world at large, though our voices, books, and slideshows and video. Stories are transformed as they move through different groups, audiences, and media. They expose the ways in which narrative influences our view of history and can change the future, and reflect on the impact of story on both what it means to be an anthropologist and how anthropology is seen by the outside world.

The session had some great participants, and I do have intentions of putting together an edited volume...once time allows...if you have an interest let me know...


In a past life, not so long ago, I wrote a dissertation about pilgrimage to Vijayangara, a 14th-16th century south Indian capital.The Vijaynagara Research Project website shows what an amazing place it is. Complexity and Economy in Pilgrimage Centers of the Vijayanagara Period is a paper I gave at the International Conference on Pilgrimage and Complexity, which included many very interesting talks. If you are really interested, you can find my book, Spiritual Journey, Imperial City, and I will be writing an entry on Architecture and Landscape in India for the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures.

Xena the Wonder Dog

Xena Warrior Princess Wilderness Puppy is an 8 year old lab mix. She enjoys hiking, chasing squirrels, and occasionally wreaking havoc and destruction on our house. We have yet to install the Xena-cam to see how she does it, but she can open cabinets (hence child locks) and also the door (fortunately only if it is unlocked).

The Boys

Need I say more?


Welcome to my blog...I expect it will be a reflection of my interests, which include anthropology, design, innovation, workpractice, and the consumer experience. As a practicing anthropologist, I take a special interest in research methods and ways of collaborating, though what attracts my attention falls into a very broad spectrum.

I've put more about me and my various past histories in the links.


By the way, my musings here are my opinions and random (or not so random) thoughts. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else, including my employers.