March 2006

Tomorrow I'm off to Vancouver to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA). This is a wonderful conference, and I highly recommend it. In the last few years the number of people who are doing work combining anthropology with design and various IT-related fields is growing – and fast. Add to that the fact that the meetings provide a genuinely diverse set of perspectives, and include a group of people that are (in my experience) knowledgeable, humble, friendly, and eager to collaborate. As compared to the AAA meetings, SfAAs tend to be more informal and to have a great deal more discussion and debate. Check out the program if you want to get a sense of it.

This year I'm giving both a talk and a poster. My talk, terribly titled 'Cultural Assessment of Kiosk Projects,' is on Wednesday from 3:30-5:20. Hopefully I can learn from some of the insightful comments on giving talks from Steve and Lorenz. It's on work I'm doing on integrating cultural assessment into the design and evaluation of projects in the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) space. This is getting to be a crowded field, and my own contribution is small, but I feel like I've got a good handle on the transitions that are happening from the perspective of applied anthropology.

And like many others, I have first hand experience with the fact that development researchers in many fields are starting realize that anthropology and ethnography are important, but they understand it as a set of methods only. While I have no pretensions about ethnography, as opposed to some who argue that 'real' ethnography can only be done by anthropologists, I do think many well-meaning researchers and practitioners in other fields actually do us a disservice by trying to use ethnographic-like methods. In trying to advance the case for ethnography to their colleagues, they often have no real 'ammunition' except that they know it ought to be done. This, in my opinion, is the same, and just as bad, as technologists who throw gadgets at development problems because they can, hoping that one will solve the problem.

My poster, during a session on Friday from 1:30-4, is based on work I did with Ben Gross regarding how people manage multiple email addresses, messaging accounts, and the like in the course of everyday life. We wonder: what are the factors that influence habits, perceptions, and decisions around complex, multi-faceted lives online? This is my first poster at the SfAA, and I'm kind of psyched for it. Poster sessions seem much more engaging than paper sessions, where the audience is always at a distance.

I hope to be online and blog some of the sessions as we go along. If you're also attending the SfAAs, drop me a line.

The Mycroft Project (which I blogged about previously) has finally reached rollout stage. We've been working feverishly to get this prototype up and running, though like anything alpha, we're expecting some glitches. This week we're rolling out our website and a prototype of the banner that we hope will someday be on thousands of websites as a replacement for web ads. Check it out at the top of this page.

Go ahead, play around with it. Feel free to sign up. Right now we're in the process of looking for volunteer sites to host the banner. It's really simple: you just go to our website, sign up, and drop the auto-generated code-snippet into your website, just like you would do with Google's AdSense. In return we'll advertise that you are in the Mycroft Network, you'll be first in line when we start paying webhosts per-click, and you'll get the satisfaction of knowing you're helping to put an end to the irritation web ads that we all know and love. So if you've got a blog or a website that gets any traffic at all, we'd really appreciate your help.

This is the 'proof-of-concept' phase where we are trying to generate traffic in order to test the system, and develop our algorithms for data quality and incentives. So please use the banner, try to break it, sign up, and come back often. For more information about all of this, please visit

'Why Poor Countries Are Poor'
The clues lie on a bumpy road leading to the world's worst library.
Tim Harford

I take this to be more evidence that even the most macro-scale solutions for problems of infrastructure, government, and institutions in developing countries will ultimately hinge on local-scale stories like the Bafut Mafia.

What would happen if development research took the form of a massive oral history project? We send armies of people (local and otherwise) out to collect the histories of the local relationships, connections, and cultures that are the linchpins in developmental roadblocks. We compile the stories. Maybe we get a clearer picture of where to direct development work?

(Thanks to Alex for the link!)

And interesting article today in USAToday about a law professor who banned laptops in her classroom. Of course, the students are pissed. And they should be. On the one hand I think it's fine for professors to control the environment in which they teach – within reason of course. That's the job of a professor after all – to pass on knowledge and experience in the best way possible.

On the other hand, professors who do things like ban laptops seem to have a surprisingly thin grasp of the contexts of learning. When students' using laptops makes professors uncomfortable it's probably because it conflicts with their cultural conception of classroom behavior. A student should sit with a pen and paper, maybe a book, and pay attention to the front of the room, just like they did when they were students.

Of course, the contexts of learning, especially in higher education, are quite different now than they were then. Wireless internet in particular has changed the classroom experience. At the iSchool it is commonplace for students to sit in lectures with laptops out, a fact which has been appalling to some folks I've told about it. Often, it's true, there is some distraction from email and the web, especially during those less than scintillating moments in class. But the fact is that laptops and connectivity have led to powerful new modes of learning. Take, for example, Sarita, Sarai, and Steve's ClassChat Project as well as Jen & Matthew's project, both of which explore the implications of the 'the backchannel', an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel that is active during many of the iSchool's courses. They are proving that the backchannel has all sorts of interesting sociocultural functions that are entirely about enhancing comprehension and retention.

After years of using WordPress's standard post editing interface, I find the WYSIWYG editor included in WordPress 2.0 to be extremely annoying. I like to enter tags manually, and I don't like them being entered on my behalf. This reminds me of MS Word's annoying auto-complete features where it formats text for you when you don't ask it to, which of course means I have to hit Ctrl+Z about a million times a day.

Anyway, it took me a while to figure out how to turn the editor off, and I thought I'd share. It turns out the thing is called a 'visual rich editor' and to turn it off you go to the WordPress admin. panel, select the 'Users' tab, scroll down to the bottom, and uncheck the box for 'Use the visual rich editor when writing'.

Thank God it's gone!

It turns out that including javascript inside individual posts in WordPress 2.0 is annoying because of the automatic text and character formatting that the software applies. The best solution seems to be to install the Text Control Plugin, which allows you to specify the text formatting post-by-post. If you want to include javascript in the post, you've got to turn off the formatting altogether, which doesn't change the look of the post at all, you just have to make sure you used all the right HTML tags. (e.g. you marked each paragraph with a paragraph tag)
(References:, WordPress Codex)

Note: One quirk of the Text Control plugin: you can't actually change the formatting options for a post until after you've saved it (or published it). So you create the post, click 'Save and Continue Editing' and then two additional drop down menus appear towards the bottom of the post editing page.

Russian River Valley Map

This weekend my wife and I took a short trip up to the Guerneville area, which is in the Northwest section of the Russian River Valley. I highly recommend it. If Napa has become completely fancy, pretentious, and expensive (which it has… see this SF Chronicle article), and Sonoma is more relaxed but getting quite a bit of the spillover from Napa, then the Russian River Valley is their inbred country cousin. It's very relaxed, quite rural, and absolutely beautiful.

The Russian River area is known (at least by me) for its Pinot Noir. One of my favorites, though we didn't get to visit the winery this weekend, is Marimar Torres Estate. We did go visit Gary Farrell, which has a gorgeous facility at the top of a hill overlooking the river. The tasting is only $5, and they waive it for your whole party if anyone buys a bottle. Their 2003 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley / Russian River Selection is their lower-priced bottling, though at $35 it's not cheap. Still, it blew us away with a balance of raspberries and sweet red apples and a lot lot lot of clove. But in a good way. We also tasted some of their special bottlings, and they were great but out of our price range.

I also wanted to write about the 1999 Martinez Bujanda Conde de Valdemar Reserva. I looked for a long time for this wine after having a bottle about 4 months ago, and finally found it at BevMo in Jack London Square. I cleaned them out. This is a moderately fruity wine where the spice and earthy tones mostly dominate. The tannins aren't too big, and I found it was wonderful to drink with nearly any food, but also without food. At $14.95 it's a real value.

Who can tell me what the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive group is all about? Reading about the conference, it seems like it was primarily populated by over-stimulated people who like to chat, drink, code (apparently), philosphize, blog, and basically burn the candle at both ends. I don't mean any of that in a perjorative sense, I'm just trying to get a handle on the demographic. It's interesting that so many of the free thinkers and bleeding edge pioneers of this generation are so non-conformist (though they're really just conforming to another stereotype, aren't they?) whereas it used to be only 20 years ago that your ability to strictly adhere to the white male capitalist agenda was the thing that let you skip all the rungs going up the ladder.

But it's times like this I have to wonder: is the whole Web 2.0 thing just a bunch of niche people scratching each other's itches? (I realize the Web 2.0 meme is dying/dead, but I don't have a better one right now.) I mean, being in Berkeley I constantly wonder how much of this web-enabled revolution is stuck in the Bay-area community and other metrospheres across the globe, without trickling out much to the rest of the world. Except in the media, which in the mainstream is enfatuated with the new, cool, sexy world of tech., and in the long tail is written by the same people it's written for.

The funny thing is, sometimes I think this whole emerging thing about sociality and sharing and production and interaction is just a big hypocrisy. I mean, it's all supposed to be about freedom, right? They (whoever that is) don't have control of our channels anymore. We can create and share together and we don't need them. But more than most groups of people the folks who create it and write about it and evangelize it will tell you you're just flat out wrong if you don't get it. Or that you don't get it because you don't have a real handle on it, whereas they do. They've got the throbbing pulse of the masses of young people who are disaffected and just making so much media they don't know what to do with it. Well, that's not true… they're tagging it. All of it.

Don't ask me where this came from.

Joe recently blogged about this too-good-to-be-true solution to CSS incompatibility problems with Internet Explorer. This javascript (called IE7, oddly enough) claims to solve the problem by effectively rewriting the rules that IE uses to lay out pages to make them compatible with the standards. Why bend over to hack up CSS to make it work with IE when you can hack up IE to work with CSS? Goodbye hacks, hello CSS heaven. If it works.

And that's a big if… I've tested it only a very little, and I can see that it changes the layouts, but it doesn't seem to unilateraly solve the cross-browser compatibility problems with IE. I am a little nervous about why the last development activity was in August of 2005. But then again there seems to be plenty of action in the forum hosted on Sourceforge.

Now, tell me this. Say you've laid out a page to perfection in Firefox. It's perfect XHTML/CSS – totally compliant. But, of course, you've got monster compatibility issues. Why is there no tool that will rewrite your CSS for you including all the hacks for the various browsers? You feed it your CSS, tell it what browser it looks right in, and it does the rest. It's not like the compliance differences are any big secret. Someone would just have to quantify the way the CSS is misinterpreted across browsers and then translate that into CSS changes. What's so hard about that? Someone scratch my itch?

By way of his blog, Malcolm Gladwell writes an interesting update on his recent New Yorker story on Pit Bulls and generalizations. (See my previous blog post.)

This reminds me also about something interesting a doctor recently said to me. I'd been reading some papers on a particular medical condition, and some of them described some awful symptoms. When I brought this up with the doctor, he said he often takes such studies with a grain of salt. One conclusion to draw from them is that a disease is particularly bad. Another conclusion comes from the fact that the papers are often based on clinical trials at hospitals and research institutes. These trials tend to attract the sickest patients – a fact which can bias the results. He called this a 'secondary effect.'

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