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, 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.

Fishies

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.

Jerk-O-Meter

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.