ADD is a financial asset, who knew?

We had a fellow come into the office to conduct a workshop in ergonomics. It sparked more interesting thoughts than you might think. For example, if slouching is so bad for you, why does it feel so good? Further, does it add more fodder to the growing pile of data that anything one might enjoy: bacon, sausage, beer and buffalo wings are all some form of cosmic bait and switch?

He also mentioned that a way to avoid injuries related to being a knowledge worker type is to stop working every 20 minutes, get up walk around, do some stretches, etc. So I guess if you hire a lot of people with Attention Deficit Disorder you’ll save a boatload of money on works comp insurance.

More lessons from design

bw.jpgJust as “design anthropologists” are busy wringing their hands over who is or is not in the club, a recent post on Bruce Nussbaum’s blog shows that the arguments for the purity of the art are not limited to anthropology, design is engaged in its own angst. While some are lamenting that design schools are no longer teaching the basic skills of design, Bruce argues that students need classic design training, putting form and function to thought, in addition to sharper skills in design thinking.

I tend to gravitate to his point of view because it mirrors my own thoughts about anthropologists working on design and strategy issues. I think where Bruce and I agree is that while is it not an either/or argument, you need the skills to think and do, both design and design anthropology are not rare skills to find these days. When something is no longer rare, it is headed the way of the commodity. Anthropologists that cannot put their work into the larger context of strategy are like designers that refuse to look past form to see how design fits into the larger context of the organization. If anthropologists that are in industry think they are going to thrive with little or no understanding of business or business strategy, I suggest watching the current design debate with interest.

Memories of Tech Support

This is a video that has been making the rounds for a bit, and it is still fun. I put myself through school as a tech support person and the only flaw in this depiction is the tech support fellow does not appear to be pulling his own hair out by the roots.

I will admit it, I have zero tolerance for poor phone support (Are you listening Sprint?). Call center turnover is generally high and for good reason, no one ever calls up to say “Hey, I just want to let you know everything’s going A-OK over here. It’s all good and working fine.” People call because they are working on something NOW and it needs to be fixed NOW. Most call center people aren’t very skilled because they have a script they follow for your problem, and if your problem does not follow that script, they are as lost as you are. Support comes in levels and generally its not until you get elevated a couple of levels that you will get to someone that actually as technical expertise and is genuinely interested in your problem.

Sprint may have the worst customer support in the history of the known world. I suspect the complaints department at Alcatraz was more responsive. Its fairly apparent the Sprint approach is two-fold:
one – get them off the phone as quickly as possible and however that happens is fair game
two – no matter what happens the problem is because the customer is in a rare dead zone / indoors / moon is in the wrong phase. But in no case is the phone, network, Sprint, its subsidiaries, employees or any resemblance to real tech support living or dead part of the problem.

Here is a favorite case from when I bought the Treo 600. I got very spotty reception and a friend and I would be standing next to each other and his was find and I could not get a signal. In multiple calls to phone support I was told:
Sprint: “Oh, you were standing next to each other? You can’t get a signal because you canceled each other out.”

Or my personal favorite:
Sprint: “You see those little bars to the side on the top?”
Mark: “yes, I do. All the bars are showing..”
Sprint: “OH, that’s your problem. See those little bars tell you how busy the network is. If you see all of them, the network is really busy and that’s why you can’t make you call.”
Mark: “………..”

In an effort to keep this blog PG-13, I can’t detail my response.

Teaching Anthropologists to count

SSblog.jpgOk, maybe not just anthropologists, but there should be something here for about everyone. The Social Science Statistics Blog is a collective blog from the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. They are described as a “series of hallway conversations on the site, and it is a pretty range of topics ranging from what makes a good peer reviewer to reviews of people coming to speak at the institute. Its on my weekly list.

I am quite twtter-pated!

twitterIt's always interesting to turn questions around to ask the mirror-image.  People are very concerned about the power of a connected world to threaten our given notions of privacy.  But what about the mirror image of that question, what do we ask about the internet exhibitionists, like me? 

You name the new on-line doohickey and I promise you I have a profile on it.  From Friendster to and flickr to filmloop I will sign up for any digital magic beans the carnival barker tells me about. 

How many Myspace pages are going to come back to haunt people?  It’s not even considered invasion of privacy to Google someone anymore.  A poll of single friends tells me that about 30 seconds after they meet someone that name is being searched.  Far from being an invasion of privacy, its more often considered only common sense.

So my latest thing has been (I'm user anthro61 if you want to follow my mutterings).  The concept is fairly simple; all you're doing is writing small short snippets about what you're doing at that particular moment in time.  It's like being able to get small slices of many people’s days.  Now personally I think this particular website is a non-starter.  Do we really need yet another stream of content popping up on our phones, sites, IM’s, etc?


What is a little interesting is how the Edwards campaign is actually using it.  Supposedly John Edwards (read: the intern that can spell I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T) sends a message a couple times a day to twitter that says where he is and where he is going to be next. 

But, at the end of the day… who cares?  Who wants a blog in minature?


Cracking the Code: Why Californians are such bad drivers.

driving%20mad.jpg I’ve lived in virtually every part of the country at some point in my life, and can say without reservation that the worst drivers in the nation are in California. But finally, after years of enduring left-hand turns from right-hand lanes, people doing 50 in the passing lane of the 101, and slamming on my brakes when the person yammering on their cell phone suddenly swerves into my lane, after all this I can now say I have cracked the code as to what's gone wrong. It's all about culture. California is a prototypical car culture. People in California think of their cars as their own little islands of tranquility. It's a place to get time away from other people, to listen to your favorite music and generally to relax. The other cars on the road are, if anything, an invasion of privacy. I think this explains the otherworldliness that Californian drivers display. They tend to treat the roads as their own personal conduits for their customized transport pods. Boston however has the best drivers in the world. The reason why is drivers in Boston tend to be better drivers is they unconsciously understand that traffic is a super organism. A car is a conveyance to get from one place to another, and that you have to be constantly aware of what everyone else around you is doing in order to be a safe and efficient driver. For example if you're merging onto the highway at the height of rush hour in Boston everyone cooperates in “zipper merging” where every other car let's someone in much like the teeth on a zipper. Don't misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that Boston is the paradise of driving. One of the reasons why Bostonians tend to drive more aggressively than other drivers is they have a healthy mistrust of all the other drivers on the road. Bostonians are hyperaware of the other cars around them because they simply assume you're from California and quite capable of having an out of body experience behind the wheel at a moments notice. Did I mention I had a frustrating day in traffic today?

Visualization for anthropologists 401

I am always interested in examples of visualization because while it’s a wonderful way to communicate insights to people, its rarely utilized by anthropologists. We are a wordy bunch and in the culture of anthropologists countless pages of jargon are held in far higher regard than an elegant illustration. viz.jpg To address this weakness in our profession, I share with you the Periodic Table Of Visualization Methods from Roll over the various “elements” and you get a pop-up of an example of that method. From the site description about "The e-learning course will be used as an online leveling course as well as a blended skill-building course for students of fourteen different university courses in four universities (for more than 500 students). These courses require advanced analytical and conceptual visualization skills in order to transform abstract thought efficiently into graphic, tangible forms and to manage the topic complexity and the problems addressed in each class." Just a wee bit of inspiration for the morning.

What would you do with this ethical dilemma?

balance_scale.jpg Anthropologists will face ethical dilemmas throughout their careers, and we don’t always agree on what the right thing is. This entry is a case study of an ethical issue I had when I was doing my graduate fieldwork in a state prison almost 15 years ago.

Students: Try taking this entry into your class and discuss the choices I made and decide what you would do.

There was an inmate that I spoke with frequently over the course of my research, I’ll call him Jim. He was smart, articulate, and was serving an XX-years to life sentence for a double homicide he committed. In addition he had committed other infractions while in prison that also added time.

One day while stopping by his bunk, Jim and I began talking about his upcoming parole hearing. He was clearly depressed and stated to me several times that if he was denied parole he would kill himself. He knew that he was stuck in prison and that was not the life he wanted. I was sure he meant it. I was also sure that he was not going to get parole based on his administrative records that I had access to.

Of course, protecting his life was more important than protecting my research, but it was not so cut and dried. Remember that we are talking about a prison here, and as Goffman taught us about total institutions, the rules we take for granted outside of a prison are completely different inside a prison. Here are two big problems:

1 – I had promised anonymity to all my participants that nothing we discussed would ever be provided back to the administration. But in this case, would keeping the confidence result in him killing himself when he in fact needed help immediately?

2 – Lets say I reported it to the administration. Yes, he might be placed on a suicide watch, and in a prison that is little better than solitary confinement. To make matters worse, an inmate that is exhibiting suicidal behavior before a parole board hearing is not going to make parole. So telling admin about his psychological state would pretty much put the final nail in coffin of his already tiny chance at parole.

I had spent enough time at the prison by now to know that while the administration would take some kind of action – even if of dubious value – and it would be bad for Jim. It would go in his record, and at all the following hearings his mental state could be called into question. I have no mental heath expertise of any kind. I was not qualified to make any kind of diagnosis if his situation really was that dire or not and I certainly couldn’t counsel him. I had always been told that if someone you knew talked about suicide you didn’t pause to give it much thought, you got them professional help and fast.

So, if I say something to admin, they put him into some form of protective custody. It also insures his parole denial, labels him a mental health case and a danger to himself. He has already said he would kill himself if denied parole. Breaking confidence and telling admin insures he won’t make parole… would he kill himself then?

If I don’t say anything he won’t get the help he needs, and since I am pretty sure (but of course I cannot say with certainty) that he won’t get parole… will Jim kill himself?

What would you do?

My Choice
In the end, after a lot of sleepless time, I left the choice with Jim and never said anything about it. He was stuck there, mostly likely for life. To me it seemed that to report his mental state would close opportunities in the future. Since I knew that reporting it would completely close his parole chances, however slim, I chose the option I felt left him with the most control of his own life. It was not my place to decide what was the best option. He was most likely going to be in prison the rest of his with very few options for personal control of his destiny, so I chose to not step in.

My fieldwork ended before his parole hearing. Because of the nature of the fieldwork I was doing, I closed all contact the participants in my project, Admin and inmate alike.

I never tried to find out what happened to him.

The Speech Accent Archive


I was listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday and there was an interesting story about the Speech Accent Archive. Its run by Steven H. Weinberger, a Linguistics prof at George Mason University.

At the site, you can listen to English speakers from all over the world reading a standard paragraph in English. It’s aimed at linguists, but it is also popular with actors as well.

Unfortunately, the site does not include what I found most interesting in the story, why these accents hold on. In the Weekend Edition story Dr. Weinberger makes the interesting connections between the parts of the first language and their English.

Just a bit of audio trivia for the day.