I like celebrities that turn out to be, well… normal.

Will Wheaton book: Just A Geek

Will Wheaton book: Just A Geek

Jodi Foster is one. She seems normal because she aggressively stays out of the public eye. This is interesting given that Howards Huges self-imposed isolation was seen as anything but normal. On the other hand, that seems to have been borne out. Lately I have been reading the blog WWdN: In Exile. This is the blog of Will Wheaton, most well known to people as the character Wesley Crusher on the television program “Star Trek, The Next Generation” and also, like many, I came to wish the same fate on the character Crusher as many Star Wars fans wished in the character JarJar Binx.  (Of course “Q” was my favorite character, but I think most people that have studied folklore have a soft spot in their hearts for the Trickster.)

Mr. Wheaton’s blog is interesting as a peek inside an industry and issues that normally only make for tabloid fodder.  His writing (and tweets) feel more like hanging out for a beer with him than a writer and reader in many ways.  He has done the child star thing, moved past it but seems to have kept the bitterness of being so closer identified with one character at bay.  What we get in his blog, and books, is the “what’s next.”  Not in the “what ever happen too” sense, but more like watching a career evolve.

I lived in Topanga Canyon, near LA, for about three years. There are a couple of local bars there that when people start getting plowed it is guaranteed you will start hearing stories from people about their failed careers in the industry, the people the screwed them over, the big names they knew, etc.  Then they fall back into a beer and meth fueled haze.  The sad part is, even if they are homeless and living under a tarp in the remote areas of Topanga canyon, it is totally plausible they once were very involved in the movie/television industry just as they said.

Will Wheaton In Exile is not that story.  It’s not a tell all, it’s more like tell you, without drama or burden.  An interesting place to start for a person-centered ethnography of the television and movie industry.

Well I’m not blogging either, so there.

Cindy’s not the only one not blogging.  Here are a few things I’m not writing about:

1)Transparency. Mark wanted me to write about it ages ago, and I’ve thought about it, and don’t know what to say. Part of what troubles me about HTS is the overt lack of transparency (does that make them transparently opaque?), in the name of national security. Is this just a question of degree? Because, really, none of us who do or who have done research among our fellow human beings are completely open books. I have yet to post my undiluted field notes for all and sundry to see. I did, however, file a human subjects protocol, and I wonder if one could look it up at the office at my PhD-granting institution if one wanted to. I like to think that being forced to think bureaucratically (that is, having to file paperwork certifying that you have thought about it) about risk, and harm, and doing thoughtful research, is one of the best ways to try to ensure, as a discipline, that such thoughtful and responsible research is carried out. Sort of like, if you think someone is watching, you might behave better.

So at what point does the difference in the degree of transparency, between the run-of-the-mill anthropologist (moi), and the HTS practitioner (not-moi), become a difference in kind?

2)How damn hard it is to write when you are not in graduate school anymore. And have kids. And work a little bit. And want to have time to fart around on the internet, go for walks, and occasionally interact in meaningful ways with spouse, friends, family. No one speaks of this while you are in graduate school! Maybe they did, and I wasn’t listening. This sounds like whining, but I really do have a point: in graduate school, all you have to do is read and write. The whole setup is supposed to facilitate that. So those people who were doing grad school at the same time they had other obligations have a leg-up on those of us slackers who Just Did Grad School. Now, in my ostensibly grown-up life post-graduate school, I’d like to write a bit, and read some intellectual stuff that’s not just what I’m making my students responsible for, but the energy and inclination is not there. I’d have to form an infrastructure from whole cloth. Find writing partners. Schedule time for “writing.” Schedule time for “research.” And carve that time out of the rest of my existence. This sounds like a very sorry-ass-tiny-first-world-problem, I’m sure, but part of what I want to point out is that there is no systemic anything that gives young academics in the non-tenure-track workforce support to write. I suspect the non-tenure track thing might also be key, because there are infrastructures in place to facilitate tenured faculty writing. The rest of us are On Our Own.

In graduate school, the motivational structure around productivity is external. Outside of graduate school, and in the absence of tenure requirements, the motivational structure needs to be internal. Clearly, I am finding these conditions challenging.

3) The fact that Barack Obama’s mom was an anthropologist. Ruth Behar has already written movingly about this, so I don’t have to, but I’ve been pondering anthropological thoughts throughout the campaign, and even after the election, and wish that there had been some sort of Anthropologists for the Anthropologist’s Son group around, pushing us as a discipline into some kind of spotlight. Surely, his mother’s passion for anthropology, the one that led her to eventually settle and build a family in Indonesia (among other places), informs the choices that the President-Elect makes/will make about how to move through the world? About his approach to his own racial identity? About his perspective on the role of government in society?

There’s another blog entry waiting to happen, and clearly it is not coming from me.

Living in Exponential Times

I promise I won’t post youtube videos with every single post (haha). However, this time I will. One of my professors posted this video on our blackboard discussion board and I found it really interesting. There is also a wikispace that further discusses the statements made in the video. If all the statements made were statistically sound, then my generation and future generations are in for some really amazing changes. That statement might make you say “duh” but seeing it in numbers and within some sort of timeline makes the point really hit home.

I found it amazing that it said 70% of four-year-olds have used a computer. It also states that students are being trained for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I can’t imagine where this statement came from, but it is interesting…


According to the Discovery Channel, the Earth hates you… it really really hates you.

Fair use from discovery channelI think I have mentioned before how much I enjoy the pseudo- science claptrap on Discovery, The Learning Channel and Animal “If its alive, it wants to kill you” Planet. Hell, I WANT to be one of the talking heads spouting the claptrap. Casting Agents can contact me via this website. There are a number of programs that I really enjoy: Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, and um…. okay, its a small number.

But I digress. It seems these channels are subject to Medical Student Syndrome. That is what happens when a Med student starts to believe they suffer from any illness they read about in their medical texts. The Indonesian Tsunami is a good example. They immediately pop up with “AMERICAS TSUNAMI, ARE WE NEXT?”. Holy crap, I have to worry about that too? Terrorists, carjacking, boogie men of all kinds, and now I have to worry about waves, asteroids, West Nile virus and also according to Discovery, Yellowstone National Park is gonna BLOW UP. Hell, they even had a show once on when pets attack. Think about that next time you are considering buying your kid an ant farm for their birthday.

Look, fear is not a bad thing. It is an important skill that we have honed over thousands of years of evolution that has helped us avoid being eaten among other inconveniences. But there is a vast gulf between fear as a personal tool of survival and a tool of mass manipulation. Ever wonder why the Homeland Security Advisory System has never, ever been lower that “elevated” since the day it was started?

Tak and the Power of Publicity

jujuYesterday morning my four year old daughter begged me to watch a tv program she had seen advertised earlier this week on Nickelodeon, entitled, Tak and the Power of Juju. For better or for worse, I was popular culture savvy enough to know that the characters and setting of this cartoon are based on a popular set of video games.

Here is my understanding of the show, cobbled together from my one episode and a little reading on their website: Tak (voiced by Hal Sparks of Talk Soup fame) is a teenager of indeterminate age who lives as part of the Pupununu tribe in a jungle setting including at least one volcano (“lava rock” was referred to multiple times in the episode I saw). He is a junior shaman with a cool magic staff with a jewel on top and has a best friend named Jeera who is the sassy, independent, and totally rockin’ chief’s daughter. Jeera is contrasted with the other prominent girl in the tribe (whose name I did not catch), who is depicted as obese, unnaturally strong, poorly dressed, and demonstrates her stupidity by speaking slowly and in partial sentences. Tak is contrasted with the other prominent young man of the tribe, Lok (voiced by Patrick Warburton – Puddy on Seinfeld), who thinks Tak’s magic is unmanly, and prefers to solve problems with a dash of bravado, a pinch of brutishness, and a gallon of misplaced egotism. Tak was given his magical powers earlier than traditional in the tribe, so he has trouble controlling them, and generally getting the “juju” to cooperate. He and Lok compete for the attentions of the both the chief and his daughter, while the very large girl pines for Lok and his chiseled chin.

In the short time I watched (one 15 minute episode entitled “Loser”), reciprocity, oral tradition, and public shaming as a form of social control in a small-scale society were demonstrated. There was a very interesting scene where the tribe sat in a circle around the fire listening to Lok tell the tale of one of his exploits. The details of the story shifted as he took requests from the group and adjusted his tale to keep the pleasure and attention of the chief and his daughter. It was actually a fairly interesting depiction of the flexible nature of certain types of oral traditions and folkstories, as the essential message of the tale (heroic Lok saved weak creatures from destruction by a giant lava rock with his brute strength) stayed the same, yet the speed of the rock, the creatures being rescued, and the method of the rock’s destruction were actively negotiated with the audience.

Perhaps it was the presence of Warburton’s voice (he voices Kronk in the spinoff television series The Emperor’s New School), but I was reminded of the movie The Emperor’s New Groove – a cartoon movie that took place in the Inca Empire. In this movie, the emperor, Kuzco, also a teenager, gets turned into a llama by the evil sorceress Yzma (voiced by Earth Kitt) and has to learn to be a better guy with the help of a commoner named Pacha (voiced by John Goodman). The movie was filled with deliberate historical anachronisms, as is the television show – where Kuzco attends a high school with cheerleaders and a track team – as well as a bunch of smooshing together of attributes of Mayan, Aztec, and Andean cultures that was likely done unintentionally.

So, is any publicity really better than none at all? There’s something kind of appealing about a children’s program set in an indigenous hunting and gathering society, and yet… does it actually increase awareness of the reality of such peoples in the real world? Do kids who love Kuzco end up reading about the real land of Tawantinsuyu, learning for example that “Inca” actually referred to the royal status, not the empire? Or how about Lilo and Stich? No doubt it sold a lot of aloha-wear, but was anyone drawn to a greater understanding of Native Hawaiians and the particular social and political challenges they face as a minority in their own lands?

I’m sure that everyone could add to this list with numerous examples of both animated and live action fictional depictions of historical and anthropological peoples. (I’ll admit to having been a huge fan of the show Xena, which kept its anachronistic tongue wedged firmly in its cheek, for example.) Pocahontas famously got the Disney treatment, and history buffs and Native Americans alike cringed. Interestingly enough, however, I was in Hawai’i the summer after the movie was released and found that the Native Hawaiian children in the activist group I was living with had adopted the song “Colors of the Wind” as an indigenous worldview anthem. They loved Pocahontas and they identified with her desire to share her love of the natural world with crazy capitalist caucasians. It was hard to find anything negative in their enthusiasm, except maybe the naivete.

The fear of scholars, of course, is that children and many of the adults who watch with them, will in fact take these mass-produced, heavily Americanized depictions of other people, places, and times at face value and let it go at that, never seeking out a deeper understanding. OR worse yet, can anyone tell the difference between the non-reality of the characters and situations in Monsters Inc. and the reality of for example, Amazonian tribes with shamans (which is what the Pupununu remind me of most despite their Polynesian sounding name)?

It was hard not to grimace when a comment from a student in my upper division prehistory class revealed that her first instinct was to trust the depiction of ancient Chinese culture in the movie Mulan over the data presented in our textbook. N.B. for you non-professors out there – in the business, when something like that happens and you manage not to have a psychotic break and beat the student over the head in fury it is called a “teaching moment.”

Speaking of “teaching moments,” I want to give a shout-out to my friends at Go Diego Go! on Nick Jr. for apparently creating one of their own. I had already written an ending to this blog when I went online to search for the presale code for tickets to Diego’s new live show… in the course of my search I stumbled across the parent message board and discovered this gem regarding a recent episode where Diego and his cousin go back in time to save a dinosaur: “You almost just lost a fan of Diego last Friday night with the promotion of a dinosaur rescue. No one knows how old the earth is and to state the fact that it could be over 100 million years old is just wrong…Also how do you know when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth it could have been with humans no one really knows when dinosaurs roomed [sic] the earth because no one has lived that long…” The individual continues, suggesting that the 9 foot tall beasts that Job fights in the Bible might have been dinosaurs. You can probably predict the rest of the content, or visit www.nickjr.com to cruise the message boards if you want to read more.

So there it is. I was already leaning to the “ (almost) any publicity of non-Western, non-modern cultures is better than none” side of the fence and this post pushed me over the edge. Maybe that Diego episode gave the child of the creationist-poster something to think about. Maybe his or her curiosity was piqued and books about geology will be snuck home form the library. Similarly, at least Mulan gave me a starting point to talk about family organization and kin groups. Lilo and Stich gave my Polynesian Cultures class an opportunity to not only discuss the controversies surrounding the modern use of the word ‘ohana but also why it might actually be realistic that one of the major figures in the characters’ lives was an agent from Child Protective Services…

So do others agree? Are you delighted when you when you see a fictional television show for children or adults set in another culture? Even if it’s filled with anachronisms, do you celebrate that at least we live in a world where such a show could even make it into the fall lineup? Or do you lament the fact that yet another time period or foreign culture has been subjected to Americanization? Is it worse for laypeople to think that the Ancient Inca were “just like us” only in different clothes and with an unnatural love for the sweet potato? Or would you prefer “they” just didn’t really think about the Inca at all if that’s how it’s going to be? And has any of this prepared us for the upcoming sitcom based on the cavemen characters from the Geico Car Insurance commercials? I guess I will just keep showing up to class and providing an alternative.