October 2005

When my wife and I lived in Baltimore we were involved with the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA), a wonderful organization that brought together practitioners from a wide variety of fields. I met many wonderful people through that organization, and always valued the advice of members. When we came to Berkeley I was surprised to find no similar organization here. Finally it looks like some enterprising folks are getting it started. Below is the announcement for the inaugural meeting. If you're in the area, hope to see you there!

We are in the process of developing a Local Practitioner Organization (LPO) for anthropologists in the San Francisco Bay area, and we
cordially invite you to become one of our founding members. Anthropologists from all anthropological subfields, both within and outside of academia, are encouraged to join us. LPOs are valuable networking and support organizations for practicing anthropologists at the local level, so please help by forwarding this message to relevant area colleagues. Most LPOs form via grassroots networking; your assistance is invaluable in getting the word out as this message will only reach a fraction of the folks in the area. Tentatively named the Bay Area Association of Practicing Anthropologists (BAAPA), the group is currently in the discussion phase of organization. Our initial meeting will be on Monday, November 7 at 6pm at Restaurant Peony, a Hong Kong-style banquet hall in Oakland's Chinatown. The address is 388 9th Street, Suite 288. It is located on the second floor of Pacific Renaissance Plaza on Ninth Street between Franklin and Webster. The restaurant is just a few blocks from the 12th St. BART station. Please send us an email to let us know if you plan to attend. We look forward to seeing you!
Email Kim Koester (Kimberly.Koester at ucsf dot edu) for more information.

This is maybe the most useful thing I'll ever blog. Next time you have to call a major customer service line and you're annoyed by the computerized phone system, pull up this handy chart. It tells you the exact keys to punch or command to say if you want to bypass the menus and talk to a human. My favorite is the Dell Customer Service hotline:

option 1, xt 7266966, option 1, option 4, option 4


The secrets seem to be:

  • For keypad-based systems try hitting 0 or #.
  • For voice-based systems say 'agent' or 'operator'.

MIT Explains Why Bad Habits Are Hard to Break (via LifeHacker)

But not just bad habits. Any habit. Activities and perceptions that are embedded in people's daily lives are very difficult to overturn. In a way the scientists at MIT have found a biological basis for why culture is such a powerful phenomenon. Nearly every anthropologist would tell you that, and surprisingly few designers listen. So much design is driven by the idea that if we come up with a tech. that does something new and cool, people will happily change in order to incorporate it into their lives. If you look at what happens with most of these technologies, it's not that they always fail, it's that they don't end up in the expected markets. They are adopted by niche groups who can enhance their existing cultural practices.

But there are some times when it's just a bad idea. Case in point: the video iPod. I'm with Steve Jobs (circa 2002-2004) on this one: no one wants to watch video on a 2 inch screen. At least not in the long run. Video and audio are completely different in this respect. Portable audio is so powerful because you can stick a set of headphones in your ears, and pretty much music is music, wherever you go. (Calm down all you audiophiles…) Video, however, is embedded in our lives as big. It's just more powerful that way, and it's what we're used to. The video iPod is a novelty. People will buy it at first, but then realize 2 inches isn't fun or engaging (even on the subway or the bus, or wherever everyone says they'll use it), and that $1.99 for a music video or a TV episode just isn't that great in a world of DVRs/VCRs/DVDs. I predict iPod video will retreat to niche uses rather quickly – for example film-makers may use them in much the same way Peter Jackson did during filming of the LoTR trilogy.

The moral of this story: If you work hard enough at it, you can overturn existing practices to advance a new idea. But mostly, why would you want to? You're fighting neurobiology. Certainly there are cases where the potential benefits are worth the effort to promote the transition. We might classify some of the industrial age's profound technologies this way: electricity, railroad, telephone, PC. But 9 times out of 10 it seems to me the best idea is to design things that incorporate the way people already behave, rather than telling them they're doing it wrong and they should come around to your way.

With all the hubbub and speculation that Sun and Google were going to get together to make a web-based office application suite and knock MS off the map, I can't tell you how much the actual announcement disappointed. The news, completely underwhelming, turns out to be that Sun and Google are going to help each other out by promoting each other's free products Google Toolbar, Java (JRE), and OpenOffice. Woo hoo.

The only way I can imagine this being news is if this partnership signals the beginning of a larger collaborative effort between the two companies, but it doesn't seem like that's happening. Microsoft is safe for now, apparently.

Update: The final word is in from Google co-founder Sergey Brin: no web-based office suite, at least for now. I'm glad to hear it – I'm betting that the grand innovation that takes productivity software from the desktop to the web is going to come from a small visionary group, not a behemoth like Google.

Andrew pointed me towards Spirit Journal's list of the best spirits of 2005. In particular I was awed that #5 on the list is vintage 1995 Evan Williams Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I'm familiar with Evan Williams as the cheap swill alternative to Jack Daniels, so seeing this bottle so highly rated was amazing, totally leaving aside the fact that it retails for $25. Wow. Good luck finding it though. BevMo has the 1990 vintage.

Update: I can only find the bottle at one store: Wine Exchange. Drop a line if you locate it elsewhere.

The About, With, and For conference on user-centered design, scheduled for Oct. 28-29 in Chicago, has announced its lineup. This year's theme is 'Work > Play' and it's described like this:

People work. People play. Are they independent aspects of life or can play facilitate work?

The 2005 AWF conference will explore how products and services, arrived at through user-centered design research, can aid in making work more productive, profitable and fun.

The list of scheduled speakers is here. The conference schedule is http://id.iit.edu/events/awf/schedule.html. Discounted but still ridiculously high registration rates are good until Oct. 7th, after which the fees really go off into the stratosphere.

(via Lifehacker) Writeboard is a new web service from 37signals that lets you collaborate with others on writing a document. It keeps a history of all the changes, and provides a really easy and intuitive interface for viewing them, rolling them back, etc. 37signals is also the developer of Backpack , a service which claims to be for 'online organization' but is really only marginally useful.

The obvious comparison here is with a wiki. The thing about Writeboard is that it's much more of a single use service. It certainly has some of that simple elegance that most wikis forgo in the name of versatility. It's so barebones that it just might work. You simply create a Writeboard, assign it a password, and then give out the URL to anyone you want to collaborate with. There's no account signup – to participate you just log onto the Writeboard, edit the document, and give your name at the bottom to ID the changes. That's it.

Check it out. Tear it apart.