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

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.