November 2004


Today's Salon includes an article by Linda Baker called 'Urban Renewal: The Wireless Way'. It's definitely worth a read. I have a few immediate reactions to it:
(So many numbered lists lately!)

1. It's no surprise that ubiquitous wireless zones are popping up primarily in college towns. The article discusses a zone set up by the University of Georgia called The Cloud at Athens that covers the campus and its surrounding area. UC Berkeley is making a similar effort to blanket its campus with wireless coverage. But where these projects are successful in promoting new uses of technology, I think we need to consider that it may be because of the peculiar cultural characteristics of college towns. The director of the Athens project, Scott Shamp, says "But what was most important was not that they understood the technology, but that we turned it into something that enhanced the community." My gut reaction is to say: roll the same technology out in your average urban residential neighborhood and let's see who understands it.

2. Eric Paulos is quoted as saying "Probably the big thing was [to] try to bring the discussion away from the immediacy of things that promote efficiency or productivity." This is fantastic. College towns are places where some of the traditional values inscribed in technology – efficiency and productivity – are already accepted and easily reproduced. Not so in most other places. To be successful and sustainable, any technology must adapt itself to the values and beliefs of the people it aims to target, and not expect those people to turn their values around for the sake of the technology. It's this necessity that makes me so skeptical about the long-term success (in their current forms) of ubiquitous wireless technologies outside of college campuses and urban business districts.

3. Scott Page, founder of Interface Studio, takes on the project of creating a 'comprehensive technology strategy' for a 'distressed' neighborhood in Philadelphia, 'including a community technology center where Temple University faculty will teach kids GIS (geographic information system) skills to build a database for the neighborhood.' Okaaayy… great. We're getting kids involved with technology and keeping it grounded in their neighborhood. But of all the things we could be teaching kids about, we're teaching them GIS? I'm a big fan of GIS, but it could rank low on the list of technologies that are most useful on an average day. Of course, if everyday utility isn't the goal, then I should shut up.

Despite the advertisement, up to this point I've not posted at all on my passion for food and wine. But given that the season of eating is upon us, I thought I'd share some of the wisdom I learned at the French Culinary Institute.

So, here are the four foolproof tips for cooking your turkey this Thanksgiving:

1. Brine It

This is the single best thing you can do to improve the flavor and juiciness of your turkey. In a large pot on the stove add:

  • about 1/4 cup of kosher salt for each gallon of water
  • 1 whole lemon + juice (just squeeze it in there and throw the lemon halves in)
  • 3-4 whole cloves

Heat the mixture up to dissolve the salt and then cool it completely. You can make any additions to the brine for additional flavor. For instance: bay leaves, thyme or rosemary, cinnamon sticks, a bit of honey or brown sugar, cardamom. The only way to tell if it's salty enough is to taste. It should taste like sea water.

Brine the turkey whole for at least 24 hours.

2. Do Not Stuff! Do Not Baste!
Stuffing and basting are about the two dumbest things you can do to a turkey. Here's why. You want moist turkey. The oven creates drying heat that will eventually suck the moisture out of your bird. So basically you want to get it in and out of there as quick as you can. If you stuff the turkey, you increase its mass. If you increase its mass you increase the cooking time. If you like dry turkey that's fine. Another thing you might want to try if you like dry turkey is opening the oven door all the time to baste it and let the heat out. That'll sure make it take longer. And don't be fooled: basting does not make your turkey more moist. How's that juice going to get way down into the meat?

3. Tent It
The problem with cooking poultry, as everyone knows, is that the white meat cooks faster than the dark meat. If you wait for the dark meat to be done, you'll have overdone white meat. If you take it out when the white meat is done, you'll have uncooked dark meat. So what do you do? Tent it. Crank the oven up to 425 and shove that bird in there (unstuffed, of course). Let the skin caramelize to seal in all the juices for about 45 minutes. Then take a large piece of tin foil, folded over and molded to fit the shape of the breast. (You might want to shape it in advance so you don't have the oven door open too long to put the tent on.) Turn the heat down to 350 and let it go the rest of the way.

4. Use a Thermometer
Take my word for it: there is no other way to know when your bird is done except by temperature. The x number of minutes per pound method is terrible. Buy one of those digital thermometers with a metal probe. After you've tented the turkey, shove the probe in to the deepest part of the breast on one side without touching the underlying bone. When the thermometer reads 165 degrees, that sucker is done!

Follow these simple steps and you can't go wrong.

All this talk of a country divided seems a little over done to me. So many Democrats invested so much in ousting President Bush that it's no surprise that many feel like moving to Canada. But some clear thinking (and a little time) seems to show that the divisions aren't as stark as we thought they were. I wanted to provide two final examples before I quit talking about politics for 3 1/2 years.

1. This graphic from researchers at the University of Michigan pretty clearly debunks the 'Red State' myth. It's a cartogram of county voting results where only the counties that were solidly Bush are in red. The borderline counties are in purple, and as you can see it changes the picture somewhat.

Cartogram by County
via Gastner, Shalizi, and Newman's U Mich. site.

2. I think this graphic from this Sunday's New York Times illustrates how meaningless a lot of the party rhetoric is. What divides one person from another isn't their political affiliation, but what they believe and how they act. I take from this graphic the lesson that we are all a lot more similar than we might have thought.

NY Times Graphic
via NY Times, Sunday, Novemeber 21 2004, Week in Review (link)

Nope. At least not according to a recently released British study. This despite the widespread reporting of the study in the blogosphere under headlines such as 'Consumers "Too Dumb" To Use Mobile Phones.'

This kind of reporting in the blogosphere really irks me. I found 4 posts on this issue, and not one linked back to the original release from the research authors. Rooting out the original release, put out by Wacom, took me all of 5 minutes, and yet these bloggers were content to link to each other and propagate a complete bastardization of some interesting research.

As to what the research actually said:

While Christmas 2003 has seen record sales of advanced mobile phones, accessing their functions is too complicated for 85% of users. 95% of consumers admitted to being frustrated when trying to use the new data-centric applications like pictures, calendar and email that are now available on the majority of new phones.

I won't go into a rant on 'blaming the user,' but I think this research is indicative of the problem. People perceive their inability to engage with devices as their shortcoming – as though they ought to be able to figure it out, and being unable reflects badly on their own skills and intelligence. (See the Interface Hall of Shame for some examples of how designers; idiocy and not users' is really to blame.) The important point to take from this research isn't that users are 'too stupid,' but rather that they feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with complex new devices.

I have recently confronted this feeling in experimenting with Nokia's new 7610, a phone with an incredible array of functionality and an stupidly complex and counterintuitive interface. It's hard not to feel stupid when you can't remember how to make a simple phone call because it requires 5 separate steps.

I think we'll face the problem of mismatches bewteen developers and people more and more, especially as converged devices become more common. The lesson should be that blaming the user is counterproductive. The central problem that companies like Nokia have to face, if they want people to invest in new technology and integrate it into their daily lives, is how to design interfaces that mesh comfortably with users skills. For the average person, I suspect the motivation for learning new skills simply to use a snazzy new mobile phone will be lacking.

NetGossip

I recently found the netObjects project via Eyebeam reBlog.

Its goal is to provide web-based information through access points other than a computer or other conventional networked device. The prototypes for the project include everything from a clock that displays news based on your political leanings to an umbrella that changes color based on the weather forecast to a book that automatically downloads and displays a catalog of pornography. Although I'm skeptical of the utility of any of these objects, I think the point is fantastic.

If you are a person who, for whatever reason, cannot relate to the common modes of interface that are available today, you're pretty much up a creek. Even alternative devices rely on essentially the same modes of input and display as the traditional keyboard/mouse/user interface. NetObjects is part of a growing recognition that relevant, high-quality content is useless unless it is available and accessible. (I use available to refer to the physical presence of something, and accessible to refer to the ability of a given person or group of people to utilize that thing by overcoming spatial or sociocultural barriers, for instance.) These themes have also been developed in the realm of 'adaptive technology' for the disabled. But one should not need to have a disability in order to find an interface which accommodates different perceptions of technology and information. Rethinking the commonly accepted tropes for internet access and technology use could go a long way to co-opting users who have thus far felt disenfranchised. (Notice that I assiduously avoid talking about the digital divide.)

This year's AAA meetings, which have been embroiled in controversy (see coverage on this blog), have an interesting online component they're calling AnthroCommons. The site seems intended to create an online space for discussion, postings, and sharing of thoughts and conference papers. This is an excellent idea I think, especially since a large number of people who were intending to go to the meetings in San Francisco are apparently not planning on attending in Atlanta.

Here's how the AAA describes AnthroCommons:

AnthroCommons: A Virtual Community for the 2004 Annual Meeting AnthroCommons will provide a single place where section presidents can post announcements and information related to the annual meeting and other events throughout the year; a place where session organizers can post papers and related scholarly content; and a place for an ongoing digital discussion forum among members to follow discussion threads on the scholarly program, as well as to allow comments by others. AnthroCommons will not provide a real-time discussion forum to replace face-to-face meetings, but will enhance the meeting by allowing posting of comments on papers and sessions. All postings are viewable by AAA members and the public-at-large.

I happened to catch this goof over at nytimes.com this morning. It's refreshing to see some honest reporting on the balance of power in the world, even if it did only stay up on the site for about 5 minutes before someone caught it.

NY Times Goof: Bush and Bush Meet

Slashdot is reporting that GMail is now supporting POP. At some point I begin to wonder, as they do, where the catch will come in.

Slashdot | Gmail Adds POP3 To Email Accounts

I am, as I imagine millions of others are, a little dissapointed this morning. So many people gave so much effort to defeat a man who stands for so many things that we detest. A good part of me thinks, 'how did this happen?' As an anthropologist, I pride myself on understanding others' points of view. But I'm having a hard time. The case against Bush has been made so plainly, in my view, that I just can't imagine that anyone could ignore it. And so all the more anger, frustration, sadness, and fear for what might happen to our country and the world.

But then I remember that this country has always been divided. There has always been a president with whom roughly half of the country disagreed. Perhaps it seems worse in this situation, because it isn't just the ideology that's wrong, but the man. George Bush is not a smart man, not compassionate, honest, respectful, or insightful. But thankfully he doesn't run this country alone. And the people who sit behind the scenes, and the Congressmen, and judges and the like, are exactly like that 1/2 of people that the other half has always hated.

And so, I think things will probably go on mostly as they always have. We'll see a swing towards conservatism and Christianity. The environment, the law, the economy, and civil rights will probably suffer. But then in 4 years we'll have another chance to pick a President, and another chance to elect a Democrat. Until then, let's just buckle up and hope nothing really terrible happens. Sigh.

I was reading recently in Weiss' book Learning From Strangers, and was struck by one simple passage at the start of its second chapter. Put simply, it stated that the goal of any research, ethnography included, was to answer a question – to provide some information that wasn't previously known.

This is a common-sensical statement in the context of most research, but I think ethnography is different. In the last 30 years or so, anthropologists (especially applied anthropologists) have developed the habit of delivering the final ethnography to the group under study, and gathering their reactions as a sort of postscript. When I have done this in the past, I have encountered a reaction that I think many ethnographers have: the study participants all say 'Duh! We knew that!'

In the context of ethnography I consider this the mark of success, not of failure. Here's why:

1. The goal of ethnography should be to write down things that the people themselves would have written down if they'd tried. It's the mark of having successfully gained insight into the true nature of a culture.

2. Someone who can recognize a true thing when they see it couldn't necessarily write it down if you asked them to. Ethnographers help to codify the tacit knowledge that people act on in the course of everyday life. In this sense they are not creating new knowledge, but instead putting it into a new form.

3. Ethnography is holistic, comparative, and contextual. By synthesizing mulitple views and highlighting cultural contrasts, ethnographers can aggregate new understandings from existing knowledge. This is the true contribution of the ethnographer, I think, and it's reflected in the title of Michael Agar's fantastic book The Professional Stranger. Ethnographers ride a fine edge between participating enough in a culture to begin understanding it as a native would, while at the same time maintaining enough distance to maintain perspective.

I suppose in the end you could argue that this is indeed creating new knowledge… but not in the sense that other research does. It's convenient for those in other fields (especially people who frown on qualitative methods) to suggest that ethnography produces nothing. But I doubt those same people get the satisfaction that I do when someone reads what I've written, and says 'Duh!'