February 2006


Recently I saw 'The Aristocrats: 100 Comedians, one very dirty joke' which is a documentary film about the comedy world. Specifically, it's about an old and famous joke which is really not one joke but a model for a joke – it's different every time someone tells it. I think I can safely not give away anything about the movie by describing the joke to you:

A guy walks into an agent's office and says to the agent, 'I've got this great new act you've got to hear about. It's really a killer, it'll bring down the house.'

The agent says, 'So what's the act?'

{insert a description of the most foul scenario you can think of that includes all sorts of sexual acts, horrible scatological stuff, bestiality, incest, basically the most abhorrent stuff you can think of. Each comedian makes this part up on the spot, gives it his/her own flair.}

The agent, flabbergasted, can only say 'Whaddya call that act?' and the guy says, 'The Aristocrats.'

Here's Cartman telling the joke if you want to get a flavor for it (Warning: this is extremely vulgar and disgusting. Like, really, I think you ought to watch it if you want to get the feel of the joke, but it's truly gross. You've been warned.):

The movie consists entirely of 100 different comedians telling the joke, talking about the joke, or talking about other people telling the joke. Apparently this joke is a big part of the construction of this community of comedians.

Somewhere about 30 minutes into the 90 minute movie, about five minutes after I stopped laughing and started wondering how the movie could possibly sustain itself for another hour, I realized something. The Aristocrats doesn't work that well as a comedy, but that's okay, because at heart it's an ethnographic film. I started to look at it differently, and I LOVED it! This joke has so many flavors and so many characters – it's something that 100 different famous comedians could all talk about and share stories about with excitement and passion. The film is a window into a history and a sense of community. Knowing the joke, telling the joke, talking about the joke, and loving it all become parts of the cultural construction of comedy. It's more about comedy and the practice of comedy than it is about the joke – the joke is just the vehicle for the story.

Now I know I said it wasn't that funny, but I almost lost control of myself when Steven Banks (a.k.a Billy the Mime) gave his wordless interpretation of the joke, standing right in the middle of the boardwalk near LA, people walking by behind him. After almost an hour of context about the joke, what it means, and the way it's told, Billy the Mime absolutely tore it up. Dear lord. I wish I could find a video clip, but I can't. I'll keep a lookout.

Recently Joe Hall and I found ourselves on CalTV talking about the recent spate of scandals surrounding Wikipedia. Check out these recent entries if you want some background. (1, 2, 3) Until they emailed me, I hadn't heard of CalTV, but it's a pretty neat project. It's an entirely online news outlet set up something like a running video blog. (Actually, it looks like the site runs on a flavor of WordPress.) But what I really like is that the way they set it up it's all about the perspectives of people they interview – the reporter will set up the problem, but then the interface allows you to click on short edited segments of interviews. Good stuff.

Mimi Ito of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California (and PI on the Digital Youth project on which I work), is announcing 8 new postdoc positions.

The Annenberg Center for Communication (ACC) (www.annenberg.edu) at the University of Southern California invites applications for up to eight postdoctoral positions and one visiting scholar position. These Visiting Research fellows will take part in a major multi-disciplinary research initiative to explore the “The Meaning of the New Networked Age: Innovation, Content, Society, and Policy.” We welcome researchers from various disciplines including anthropology, architecture, the arts, business, communications, computer science, design, economics, engineering, history, international relations, law, library science, neurosciences, political science, rhetoric, and sociology.

Here is the official list of keyboard shortcuts in Firefox. In particular I've found a few ridiculously useful:

Ctrl + Page-Up / Page-Down – Switch to the next/last tab
Ctrl + Tab – Cycle through tabs (just learned these!)
Ctrl + E – Switch the focus to the searchbox in the address bar
Tab – Next field
Shift + Tab – Last field

Thanks to Matthew Rothenberg for the reference to this fantastic work on edible user interfaces done by Dan Maynes-Aminzade.

As I mentioned before, I switched my RSS feed over to FeedBurner because of some nifty features, most notably the ability to track readership.

I began by switching the feed only for new subscribers, but now I've redirected the old feeds to the FeedBurner feed. This should be seamless for existing subscribers – please let me know if it's not (and I apologize!). It turns out that switching to FeedBurner with WordPress is very, very easy thanks to a plugin that automates the whole process. I highly recommend it!

Anyone who's done interview transcription themselves knows that it's both necssary and a giant, unimaginable time-suck. When I'm getting towards the end of a 2 hour interview that took place in a loud cafe, I know I'm about to poke my eyes out. So I try to send them out to transcription services whenever possible. It isn't cheap though, so sometimes we're stuck.

Through the Anthrodesign list I learned of a new, free (Shareware) application called transScriber. It's a simple and functional tool for playing back transcription audio while you're typing it into a word processor. I like that it's unencumbered and easy to use – you load the sound file into the app. and it sits in the background while you work in MS Word or whatever. To access the audio controls you just hold down the Alt key and hit an arrow key. Up is start/stop, left and right are for stepping back and forth in 10 second chunks. You can also set bookmarks by hitting the down key, but it looks like there is no way to save them if you quit the program. It supports a wide variety of audio formats, at the moment MP3, MP4, AAC, WAV, AIFF, GSM, and G.711.

So, I like tranScriber, but all things considered, I'd definitely choose Express Scribe (which I blogged about last year) instead. On the one hand, Express Scribe doesn't do bookmarks, and transScriber's Alt-function keys are nice compared to Express Scribe's use of the function keys at the top of the keyboard. I found hitting 'F7' and 'F8' with any speed required a lot of accuracy since my hands have to move from the typing position. Alt – arrow is much easier. On the other hand, Express Scribe is also free, does everything transScriber does, and has a ton of flexibility and features:

  • Supports foot pedals
  • Lets you customize the playback speed, supports slow playback
  • Let's you customize the FWD and REW jump lengths
  • Remembers audio position across sessions
  • Supports a VERY long list of file formats

Still, you've gotta give transScriber's author Mads Rydahl a huge amount of credit. He built the software from scratch to help out his girlfriend who is a social anthropologists. That's get you points!!!

My buddy Alex, who is an editor at Baltimore magazine, has an interesting post about entitlement and class dynamics in Baltimore.

I spent 7+ years in and around Baltimore, and Alex's perspective reminds me that Baltimore is a city with a deeply rooted identity crisis. In the October 21st, 1973 edition of the New York Times Magazine (that sadly I can't seem to find online), famous Baltimore columnist Russell Baker published a piece titled 'The Biggest Baltimore Loser of All Time.' It's a fascinating read about collective identity and social history in Baltimore. In it he basically argues that Baltimore has developed a massive penchant for underachieving as a result of everything from its position as the banking capital for the Confederacy to the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are the almost-winningist baseball team of all time. In other words, they have gone to the World Series without winning more times than any other team.

It would be interesting to revisit that argument in 2006. Alex, you up for it? Let's get Russell on the line…

I check my site stats from time to time, but I always wonder how much of my traffic comes from RSS feeds, which are difficult to track. So just today I decided to start using Feedburner, which is a nifty service that helps track RSS readership and promote your feeds. I've switched the links on the blog to the new Feedburner feed, but those of you who read through the normal channels won't be affected. If you want to switch, I encourage it. I know there is a way to do painless redirects to the new feed, but it involves some htaccess magic, which is particularly tough if you're already using htaccess to manage semantically meaningful permalinks, as I am. Maybe someday I'll be bold enough to try that! In the meantime, check out Feedburner.

I was pretty thrilled to find out recently that my paper, Cultural Assessment for Sustainable Kiosks, was accepted to the 1st International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2006). In it I argue that most assessments of ICT4D projects are too narrowly focused on economic and technical factors, that the concept of sustainability needs to be refigured in terms of grassroots culture instead of business modeling, and that so-called 'rapid' ethnographic methods are a great way to captual cultural factors in an efficient and contextually appropriate way. An earlier version of this paper is available here.

It's very gratifying because I've loved working on ICT4D over the last year, and at the same time I've been sad that I haven't been able to devote more time to it. This gives me motivation to keep going. At the moment it is just a theory paper. This is the beginning of a long road that includes theory, method, and most importantly case-studies of successes and failures in ICT4D projects. The serious analysis of faliures is a glaring hole in the ICT4D community. Why has there been no effort to extract best practices? Considering how many ICT4D projects fail to some degree, it's really amazing…

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