Sour Grapes and Fake Names

Last week, Mike responded to one of my postings about the difference between the quality of education at Chico and Berkeley with a two word response: “sour grapes.” Presumably, this is because he does not agree with me that Chico has higher quality undergraduate programs than Chico State. Maybe, it is because he went to Berkeley, I don’t know. Anyway, I would hope to have a good discussion on-line or by email about why he disagreed with me.

Anyway, I tried to respond by email to Mike, but it turns out that he faked an email address when posting to I do not mind people using pseudonyms in order to post, and I do not mind vigorous disagreement, particularly when it is backed up with data, logic, and reasoning. But people who do so should have the courtesy to include real contact info. So, Mike, or Tim, or whatever your name is, how about it? Why exactly do you think it is “sour grapes” for someone from Chico State to criticize the quality of undergraduate education at UC Berkeley?

Of illness and Myth

Sweet mother in heaven. I have been sick as a dog for days with a cold that has been going around laying people up for one and two weeks. You know the one, you think you are getting better one day and are feeling your brains turn to mush the next.

When you have been sick for a while and stuck in bed flipping through History Channel, Discovery, TLC and National Geography channel you really start to appreciate the cottage industry of “The da Vinci Code.” You start to feel like you are the only person on earth that remembers it was a novel, as in a clever work of fiction. But alas, who am I to ruin other people’s pleasure in pseudo-science claptrap? These things have got to be pretty cheap to produce. Simply find your various authors and experts of dubious background, interview them against a black background for a couple of hours, and you have heaps of 30 second sound bites you can slap onto anything from programs on biblical scholarship to the Shroud of Turin to the Freemasons. I wish I was exaggerating, but in the last couple of days I have seen the same expert, same clothes same camera angle on three different programs with different sound bites.

Thank goodness my medication makes me sleepy

Would a President Obama Bring an Anthropological Perspective to the White House?

I was impressed with Barack Obama’s statement on race in America.  It showed an awareness of empathy, race, and culture that I am more accustomed to hearing about in university seminars in say, anthropology, than political addresses in the middle of a campaign.  I hope that Obama is correct in assuming that the American people are ready for such an approach.

Obama himself of course has had unusual exposure to anthropological thinking.  His mother Ann Dunham Soetoro was an anthropology student at the University of Hawaii, and eventually earned a Ph.D. after spending four years doing field work in Indonesia for her dissertation “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds” which was 1067 pages long (sounds like overkill to me!).  She also had a career as an applied anthropologist, working for USAID, and the Ford Foundation.

Besides living in Indonesia from ages 6-10, Obama himself also reportedly visited his mother many times while she continued to live in Indonesia.  While he was not an anthropology major himself, I have some hope that if he becomes president, a more nuanced view of cultural issues will be moving into the White House.

Culture and Car Bombs

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis is about culture albeit  in a very macabre fashion. It is about how the car bomb (actually a horse-drawn cart), “invented” by a Mario Buda who bombed Wall Street in September 1920 is became a tool of create urban terror. Buda’s wagon killed 38-40, and injured 200 passers-by.  The response by the US government of course was quick and harsh–and Buda was never caught.  But more importantly for this book’s thesis, Buda created an innovation that both law enforcement and terrorists continue to evaluate today.

As for the car bomb itself, the result was the cultural diffusion of this cruel weapon just in the same fashion as other technical innovations.  As with other new ideas, the car bomb changed and responded to a range of technical, political, and cultural condtions.  The nature of this change is waiting for analysis in anthropology classes where the inevitable term paper assignment is “pick a technology, and explain how it diffused in response to a mix of technical, cultural, and social needs.” There have been enough papers of this sort written about the QWERTY keyboard, stone axes, and cargo cults.  Mike Davis is offering 21st century students a chance to use the car bomb in their responses to this inevitable prompt!

Davis’ story is a fascinating one of an unusual innovation. After Buda’s first attack in 1920, it took over 20 years for the car bomb to be used effectively again, this time in the late 1940s by the Israeli Stern gang in Palestine who used it against the British and Palestinians.  Palestinians in Jerusalem responded with more car bombs, apparently with the assistance of British deserters. And thus the “poor man’s missile” became a weapon of war.

Other innovators included the Viet Cong who made the first attack on an embassy in Saigon in 1965, radicals in Wisconsin who invented the ammonium nitrate fuel bomb in 1970 and bombed a university physics lab, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the 1980s who combined suicide car-bombing with a regular military tactics, and the bombing of two US embassies on the same day in 1998.  There was even a CIA funded “car bomb university” in Pakistan from 1982 to 1992 which trained 35,000 potential car bombers from across the Muslim world in the use of explosives as a terror weapon.  Today of course, the car bomb is skillfully and cruelly used as a tool of war and terror by insurgent groups in Iraq. As Davis points out, despite high rates of injuring and killing bystanders, the urban car bomb is inevitably the weapon of the poor against the establishment.

Anthropology students looking for an unusual approach to culture and the transfer of ideas should pick up Buda’s Wagon. Davis is not an anthropologist, so there is no theoretical material to clutter up the book–the stories he tells, and statistics he writes about are pure data for the more theoretically inclined.  Which of course means that the student can provide the analysis which, ultimately is what the professor wants to see. The answer that Buda’s Wagon provides is that culture is something that responds to both the ecological context provided by the wider world, as well as human ideas about needs for order, justice, and inequality.

I forgot to mention my thanks to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

Network of concerned anthropologistsHad it not been for the great controversy over the Human Terrain System spearheaded by the vocal minority at the  Network of Concerned Anthropologists, I might have never known about this great opportunity. When I heard about the HTS program through an article mentioning the NCA, my first reaction was “How can I participate?” Using anthropology to reduce death and injury. Sounds like a good idea to me.

So my heartfelt thanks to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists for showing me this new and exciting career path in applied anthropology that I had been unaware of before.

Changing Careers, Changing Locations

history of leavenworthI recently moved on from a wonderful long career in design anthropology to my latest adventure. I joined the Army’s Human Terrain System program and for the next few months I’ll be living near the Ft. Leavenworth area. How much I’ll be writing about my HTS training and work is unknown at this point. Over the years I have tended not to write about any of my professional work directly, but who knows. In the meantime, I wanted to pass on a couple of my personal learning’s for clients and consultants from over a decade in design anthropology. Here goes:

Clients: Please, please stop demanding that you want or own the raw video recordings from the fieldwork.
If your consultant is smart, they have written in the contract that you do not own them. But there are very good reasons that you DON’T want them. To start with, clients want the raw video in the mistaken belief it can somehow be reused later to answer other questions. This is very unlikely and I can count on one hand the number of times I have gone back to the raw video after the program is finished, and that usually yields nothing new of value. Look, do you really want to spend the 3 to 5 viewing hours per actual hour of video trying to pull new meaning out of video shot for a completely different question? Also, that video is a Liability to own. As a rule, there are releases signed with the participants that the video will not be used for anything other than that project and viewed by a limited group of people. Those videos contain people crying, telling off-color jokes, admitting to seeking divorce without a spouses knowledge. Are you really interested in taking the rap for when this shows up on YouTube? Unless you are planning on hauling all those tapes with you all over your company to keep them safe, you really don’t want them.

Consultants: Take your clients into the field, always.
Your clients know their business better than you do and will make connections you don’t. Also, they are going to be your most important voice within the organization that vouches for the process and credibility of the final work. They are not going to watch one interview and change the company strategy based on this. Take the time to show clients how they are expected to act in the field, debrief field visits with them and treat them as research partners.

Clients: Fieldwork is not a vacation or a time to be a tourist.
Fieldwork is hard work, long days and people you were expecting to interview changing schedule, canceling outright, or turning out to be downright strange is par for the course. This is NOT the time to just drop in with a VP unexpectedly to let him or her experience fieldwork once. Researchers work hard to plan activities and schedules to get the best data we can. The only people allowed in the field should be those that will be contributing to the insights in the long term. Your sightseeing VP is not one of them. They get to watch the clips reel.

Consultants: Never forget the “why should they give a sh*t?” rule.
When you think you have come to an interesting route to investigate, or interesting insight, always ask yourself and your team “Ok, Great… now why should our client care about this?” Even if you realize in the conversation that they don’t really care about your insight, that’s fine, you have just pushed ahead. If you do have a great why they care moment, write it down, that’s going to be your lead!

Clients: Little can save you from a poorly scoped program, and that’s squarely in your court.
I can’t mention how often a client has shown up with a project that asked the team to “boil the ocean.” Even worse, I have had to lead a couple of those projects and they rank on the top of my list for worst professional experiences. Boiling the ocean is when the client refused to limit the scope of the project in any way. I once had a client that scoped the project as virtually any topic or business they were not in at the time. Space Tourism? Sure, we might try that! Building toasters… sure, we’re up for that. Never mind they had zero intellectual, professional, manufacturing or research assets in those areas. Work collaboratively with your consulting team to scope the project to your needs, timeline and be sure your consultant has the resources to do the job. Its not all the clients fault, its the consultants job to know when to walk away from the project and let the competitor have it.

Just some thoughts for the moment.