Forward, Into The Past!

recliner.jpg( With thanks to The Firesign Theatre) Of all the Science Fiction genes out there, Steampunk currently has the most interest for me. I think Science Fiction is good reading for anyone interested in the intersection of culture, design and technology and the social implications the occur at the center. Why? Good SF is not about buggy–eyed creatures with ray guns, at least not anymore. Read works by Brin, Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Card and Ellison and nary a bug-eyed creature will be in sight. What you will get are compelling stories that often address forms of societal upheaval, introductions of elements that cause divisions, and of course people overcoming great odds. It’s sometimes easier to let works that are far removed from our current experience to help us contemplate questions about our own societal issues in new ways.

What I like about Steampunk is not just the literature so much, but that many of the most ardent fans are also makers. They create these wonderful Jules Verne era devices that turn the conception of modern technology on its head. For example, the Neverwas Haul, shown in the 1st video, is a steam powered love note to Victorian ideas of exploration and armchair anthropology. Here’s where the tables are turned: it’s a 3 story Victorian mansion the will soon be able to move under its own steam power. Its not just the members of the club that explore… the entire club explores. Art and whimsy can often teach us as much about innovation as anthropology and business can.

The next video is from Crabfu Steamworks. This is the steam powered centipede, but the R/C steam powered spider is pretty damn impressive too.


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You don’t have pictures of people you work with at home?

wall.jpgI was listening to the American Public Media program Marketplace when a commentary came on by someone that does not keep her personal photos at work or photos of people she works with at home. Yep, you gotta keep that strict separation of church and state. Apparently some large unnamed company in Britain has banned employees from keeping knickknacks like personal photos or other items on their desks, and the employees were a grumbling about it.

These are the times that, as someone who consults in the world of “innovation”, I make that dent in my desk a little bit deeper. You know the one I mean, it’s that space on my desk where I slam my head after hearing this kind of report in hopes of some epiphany as to why this is happening.

Ok, I just backspaced over three paragraphs of ranting about this, so let me condense it. It’s a stupid, wrong-headed dumbass idea. I can’t even fathom the conversation that brought this policy about. Is the office footage in London so expensive that they charge by the cm square on the desk? Did someone get the bright idea that “Good Gods man, if we let them have pictures of their families at their desks, they will think they are human. Next thing you know they will be walking about on their hind legs and demanding opposable thumbs!”

To be fair, compared to the commentator I am the oddball. I would bet most people don’t have pictures of people they work with in their homes, but I do… bunches of them from all over the place, not to mention a few clients. Why? I have had a lot of fun working with my colleagues and clients, and have photos of us doing everything from building fences on a cattle ranch in Montana to eating something I have never seen before outside the main fish market in Tokyo. I have years of photos in my house, because they are my memories and my life is not a partial one, it is a whole. I have pictures of fellow performers, instrument makers, 90 year old hang glider pilots and clients laughing. But in full disclosure, in my office we don’t have photos on our desks, we have walls of them. They are on the desks, in the project rooms, even the odd standing cutout. We are a bit picture happy.

Look, if you are listening: If you want to cut costs, increase productivity, get people to help you think yourself out of the “well, it could be worse, we could be U-Haul” existence you are in, the pictures on your employees desks is an unprofitable way to start. Oh, and if you are the Board of Directors, and the CEO came up with this idea? Guess whose desk you need to clear off first.


Will the Nintendo Wii keep its lead?

They have a patent, but is it enough to help them keep their experience unique?

I purchased a Nintendo Wii just before the holidays for a simple reason: There has never been a console game that kept me interested. Punching buttons reminds me too much of the ceaseless typing I do now.

The Wii is a great system because they made the risky choice. They choose to create an entire experience rather than enter the technology arms race. If you have not had a chance to play with one yet, I can tell you it virtually brought work to a halt in our office for two days. People weren’t going mad over the graphics, it was the physicality between them, the game and the people they were playing with. The graphics matter so much less because of the fun they are having with other people and you can’t help but move around a lot when you play. There are a number of reports about just how aggressive this movement can be, note this lovely image off Engadget Sony is clearly concerned as the Wii is outselling the PS3 in almost all markets and a spokesperson for Sony made the amusing observation “the Wii is an impulse buy.” Pretty strong impulse on the part of the people willing to line up outside Target at 2am to buy one. “Honey, I can’t sleep. I think I’ll get a nice glass of warm mil…no, I’m gonna get a Wii, that’ll help!”

The question is can they keep this short lead? The technology in the Wiimote is wonderful because it shows how fairly simple technology can be put together in a compelling way to make something much more interesting. Accelerometers, Bluetooth connection like you have on your cell phone and the plain old IR just like your TV remote. All of this is combined in an interesting and compelling way. The question is, is it clever enough to prevent Sony or Microsoft from being the oh-so-dangerous Fast-Follower?

What they have done is possibly patent existing technology into a new form, its done all the time to everyone’s benefit. Let’s say you patented the eraser, and person #2 patents the pencil. A third can patent the idea of attaching an eraser to a pencil. Sure you can sue person three from using your patented eraser, but you are suing to prevent them from selling more erasers for you. The question for Nintendo is this wonderful combination unique enough to be their own?

I found a patent Nintendo filed in 1999 (#7,145,551) for a “Two-handed computer input device with orientation sensor”

wiimote2.jpgA hand held computer input device includes a first housing portion having at least one user actuable input device. A first extending handle is coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. A second handle is also coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. An orientation sensor is coupled to the first housing and is configured to sense a physical orientation of the first housing portion. The orientation sensor provides an orientation signal indicative of the physical orientation sensed.

The question will be how clever the patent have been written and trust me, you want clever. It has to be broad enough that it covers current and past technology and anticipates future technologies. But, it can’t be so broad that it is generic and covers everything. So, I give it 9 months, MS or Sony will bring out something similar for their consoles, the lawyers will be let off their leashes and the games will begin.

There’s no choice really, Nintendo is betting on the best killer app being another human being. Sony and Xbox are betting on technology. They will have to open up the human experience to approach why people are excited about the Wii. That means getting past this patent.


The Unholy Love-Child of Web 2.0 and PowerPoint

This is a great little short film by A Film by Clemens Kogler.

From the YouTube description
Le Grand Content examines the omnipresent Powerpoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential. Intersections and diagrams are assembled to form a grand ‘association-chain-massacre’. which challenges itself to answer all questions of the universe and some more. Of course, it totally fails this assignment, but in its failure it still manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters.

If you crossed Marvin the Paranoid Android and Al Gore, I think this this would be the resulting content.


What Clowning Teaches about Rapport

A clown is a poet that is also an orangutan
– Attributed to various people.

clown%20one.jpg
One key to a good ethnographic interview is the ability to gain rapport with the person you are talking to. Rapport can be a mysterious thing, you are a stranger talking to another stranger asking questions and often taking a more intimate look into their lives than they might even share with friends or family.

One framework for thinking about interviews that I have comes from the physical theater theatrical clowning of the late Paris mine and teacher Jacques Lecoq. I learned this framework when I studied with Avner the Eccentric, a student of Lecoq’s. What Avner taught us one day was that according to Lecoq, there are several levels between apathy and enthusiasm that an audience experiences in a performance. If the performer can connect with the audience at that existing level of emotion, then the performer can move that audiences experience during the course of the performance between happiness and sadness. This means if the audience is in an apathetic mode and the performer starts overly enthusiastic, it is not infectious, it will actually push the audience’s emotions lower. A classic “trying too hard” scenario.

During an interview, an ethnographer’s job is actually the mirror image of that. Instead of us trying to control the emotions of the people we are talking to, we need to connect with them where ever they are on the empathy to enthusiasm scale, then let them move us up and down. Why is this important? There is a danger that in an effort to gain rapport, some people will give an enthusiastic reaction to many thing that the participant tells us. The intention of the interviewer in this case, is they want the person they are talking to to feel confident the interviewer is listening to them and to encourage them to go farther. The problem is, if you think of it in terms of Lecoq, that the interview can infuse the participant with a false enthusiasm for a topic. Essentially after gaining rapport, the interviewer can unwittingly lead the interview from any emotional standpoint.

So one way to build rapport is to connect with your participant at their level of enthusiasm for the task at hand and let them move you as the interview progresses and the rapport grows.

Warning, this entry may be somewhat apocryphal. I have tried to locate where I learned this in my various notebooks and diaries that I have kept over many years, and cannot.

Disclaimer: I frequently go back to previous entries to clarify points and edit the numerous typos I am sure you have found


Creating Frameworks 101

We all know that simple is often the most elegant and I found little gem off Seth Goodin’s site. Indexed is a visual blog that uses simple visual frameworks to ponder life’s big questions. Huge insights? Maybe, maybe not, but often amusing. What I like is you immediately understand exactly what’s going on with no explanation or additional context. She’s a cartoonist of quantifying culture. Its an inspiration for those of use that are paragraph focused.

Thanks for the chuckle.


Side by Side comparisons of 3 audio recorders

This was supposed to be a simple, short entry. To avoid future disappointment, lets all just accept that I am a long-winded bugger and best read when you have a little time. I want to be pithy, I really do. I am just not genetically coded to do it.

Every so often, a question shows up on the Anthrodesign list asking about equipment recommendations. The latest query on the list has been about voice recorders. Here are three recorders side by side so you can hear the difference. Times have changed since I got my first Marantz PMD analog recorder at a thrift store. Little did I know my $30 purchase was then state of the art for people from NBC to NPR. I prefer digital recorders over tape now for the portability and because I can send our transcription service the audio files from the field as soon as I get back to the hotel.

But before looking at recorders, let’s understand why you’re using a digital recorder to start with. Like a lot of things you want to plan ahead. Is the resulting audio intended to be used as a soundtrack or documentary later? Maybe it’s strictly for note taking. Are you transcribing the recording yourself, or will you be hiring a transcription service to do it? I have different recorders because I record in a variety of situations.

Going hand-in-hand with this is the question of what kind of trade-offs are you willing to make for quality of sound versus ease of use. MiniDisc recorders will generally offer you a far superior recording quality, but are generally more complicated to use. Whereas something like a mini tape recorder is quite easy to use but the quality of the recording can range from unusable to mediocre. Remember that quality and clarity are not necessarily the same thing. Digital recorders are not designed to offer the highest level of recording quality of everything in the room they are optimized to provide clarity for speech.

On to the recorders! I just made some quick recordings in my living room. It has a couch, chair, a large plasma TV on one side and another wall is mostly window. This means it’s a smallish room with large slabs of glass on two sides and not much sound absorption. A pretty typical bachelor living room. The recorders were on a small table in front of the couch, I had the TV on low, about 4 feet away and the windows open to provide a little ambient noise while I sat about 5 feet away.

If there was an “autogain” setting on the recorder, I turned it off. I used to be a recording engineer and generally avoid autogain settings. Why? What audiogain does is lower or raise the recording level to keep some level of consistency. If what you are recording is very soft, it will try to make it louder. If it gets really loud, it lowers the recording level. This causes an effect referred to as “pumping and breathing” because it causes the volume to go up and down and that constant change makes the volume feel like is it going up and down all the time. This can give the listener the audio equivalent of motion sickenss. Have you seen a home video that is constantly being zoomed in and out? It’s painful to watch, that’s what autogain does to your poor ears. Studios are very controlled, but field recordings are very dynamic. You are in an interview and a truck rolls by, and the autogain will turn the mic way down, lowering the truck noise, as well as the entire interview. The person you are interviewing starts talking softly? Autogain cranks up the volume bringing the voice level up, as well as the birds, washing machine, and leafblower outside. This can happen multiple times a minute even in what you think is a quiet room depending on how sensitive the device. In short, a generally bad idea.

The Sony Minidisc Player and mic set-up I have is not the one pictured here, (the model I have is no longer in stock.). You can’t really tell in this recording, but minidisk recorders are great for recordings you want to use later as soundtracks that you want your audience to listen to without wincing. I made this recording with a Sony MZ-NH900 and a small Sony T-microphone (about 2 inches high) that plugged directly into the recorder. To get a better idea of the quality, here is a field recording I made of some girls singing in a town called Manebhanjan on the Nepal/India border. This used a similar set-up, a small simple mic but a Sharpe minidisk recorder. But quality has a price, namely learning to use one of these little darlings is far from intuitive, and you actually have to worry about things like recording levels. The software that’s included to get your audio from the recorder to your PC and from a proprietary format to a standard format are simply criminal in its design. If UI designers of the recorder or the software could be subject to class action lawsuits, they would be the equivalent of big tobacco. Great sound, but be prepared to invest some time to learn to really use it.

Okay, I got the Belkin TuneTalk at Brookstone exchanging a birthday gift. Here is the good news: built in stereo mics, can also use external mics, no software needed, you just plug it into the video iPod. You hit record and go. Take a listen 3.3mb. the files are .wav files from the git go and you just copy them from the iPod to the hard drive and go. The bad, hear for yourself. I think the quality blows. You get about 3 hours recording time on a fully charged 80gig video iPod. Sure, there is an Amazon link to it here if you want to try it out, but unless you already have a video iPod, I wouldn’t bother.

Ah, the Olympus DS 2 Digital Voice Recorder. Ok, this is what I use most often for the day to day work. Here is the living room test. only 88K The quality is good enough for transcription, in high quality mode records for four hours and you just plug it into a USB port and copy the .wav file off the device. The down side? In the standard play mode it uses a proprietary audio format that requires you to use the included Olympus software to download the files and convert them to .wav files. The software is of course a crime against god and man. Apparently after getting fired from Sony for the minidisc work, the UI designers moved to Olympus to shovel themselves in deeper.

People have also been suggesting the Edirol R-09 or 07 WAVE/MP3 Recorder. I would like to get a sound sample from it, and if you own product, feel free to e-mail me a 15 second sample. Based on the details from Amazon, it has an internal mic, does not use a proprietary format for the files, and uses widely available SD card storage. This is certainly a pretty spendy box, but a couple of folks on the Anthrodesign list swear by them. Besides, what costs you more: spending a few hundreds dollars on a nice bit of kit, or having a crappy recording of the best interview you have ever heard?

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.