Deciphering Culture

The limits of GPS: looking for a labyrinth on the edge of a cliff

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Labyrinth at Eagle's Point (Land's End, San Francisco)

In an earlier post (Tommy on the edge of a cliff), I wrote about the experience  of walking the labyrinth at Eagle’s Point in San Francisco’s  Golden Gate National Recreation Area. What I didn’t write about was the role technology  played in finding the location of the labyrinth, which is a user-created feature of the GGNRA and not officially acknowledged. As I wrote in “Tommy on the edge of a cliff,” a Google search located three labyrinths in San Francisco and I decided to visit the one at Eagle’s Point along the Land’s End trail where the bay meets the ocean. Before I left to drive across town, I plotted and saved the journey on Google maps on my trusty iPhone. Once I arrived at the trailhead, I relied upon the GPS function of the iPhone to find my way to Eagle’s Point.  I was surprised to find the trails in the GGNRA clearly marked on Google maps but quickly found that the GPS that works so seamlessly on city streets and freeways was out of its depth. The twists and turns of the trails made simple instructions—”take the next left”— seem meaningless and vague. What on later occasions would be a 20 minute walk turned into a circuitous 40 minute hike.

The conclusion I draw from this experience is not the inadequacy of GPS in non-urban settings but how completely the use of GPS has infiltrated  my approach to  finding  my way. I later found that the trail markers in the Land’s End area of the GGNRA clearly indicate the directions to Eagle’s Point and following them creates a much shorter  route to the labyrinth.

As a note: this post was inspired by the Omni Project of Portugal Consulting, “a self-funded study about the impact that digital technology is having on our lives.” Well worth checking out.

 

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

November 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Short takes: Insights on ethnography from Mimi and Eunice

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One of the dilemmas of ethnography is how to create a picture of the “now” of an event or experience that is not shaped by expectations or other unacknowledged (or unconscious) interpretations of the ethnographer. Bracketing ones reactions and biases is the classical anthropological technique to deal with such distortions. The effect of temporality on ethnography has not received the same degree of attention (with the exception of the work of Johannes Fabian). In tw0 recent strips, the ever-perceptive Mimi and Eunice present dilemmas presented by the temporal constraints of looking back on the “now.”


For an interesting exposition of the concept of mnemonic arbitrage go to the original post: Mnemonic Arbitrage.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

October 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

Tommy on the edge of a cliff

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Labyrinth at Eagle's Point (Land's End, San Francisco)

A labyrinth is not a maze. There is no intention to fool you: there is one way in and one way out. You simply follow the path to the center and then back out, a metaphorical equivalent to any number of spiritual traditions. Walking a labyrinth can be a walking meditation if you do it with intention.

Placing one foot in front of the other,

Gauging the distance as you frame the intention;

Taking the step, intention inseparable from action.

It falls into a rhythm, step after step, clearing the mind.

For the last  year, I have been working to rewire my brain in response to some neurological difficulties. Choosing alternative modalities of treatment in lieu of the bag of drugs the neurologist handed me, I made steady but uneven progress. Bodywork, meditation, exercise, music became part of my daily routine. Recently, my wife suggested I add labyrinth walking to my regimen: “I think if you walk a labyrinth once a week, you’ll be healed.” She described her experience walking a labyrinth and I decided to give it a shot. A Google search located three labyrinths in San Francisco and I decided to visit the one at Eagle’s Point along the Land’s End trail where the bay meets the ocean. A drive across town and a forty minute hike led me down the bluffs to a labyrinth perched on a cliff. I entered the labyrinth and tried to walk the path with singleminded intention. Maintaining the clarity to keep an even gait was harder than I imagined, especially when the outer circle of the labyrinth passed within three feet of the sheer drop to the rocks and water a hundred feet below. I followed the circuitous path to the center, stood for a while then retraced my steps out of the labyrinth.

Entrance to the labyrinth at Eagle's Point

I left the labyrinth refreshed and inspired, and a little mentally tired. A beautiful sunny day, the experience of walking the labyrinth on the edge of the cliff had left me with the feeling of possibilities.  A number of the healing modalities I’m using are  premised on the theory that brain waves need periodic recalibration. To me, walking the labyrinth was most like becoming absorbed in listening to a piece of music. Like deep listening to music, walking a labyrinth can take you away to another world and bring you back reoriented to this one.

Short Takes: Haruki Murakami on talent, focus & endurance

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Cover of "What I Talk About When I Talk A...

Cover via Amazon

 

 

If you’ve passed by Deciphering Culture with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a serious fan of Haruki Murakami. The blog 99% posted a short piece on Murakami’s thoughts on the essential traits needed for successful as a novelist (excerpted from Muraakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The insights Murakami learned from running are applicable to all creative endeavors: you need talent, focus and endurance. An excerpt from the excerpt posted on 99% (Haruki-Murakami-Talent-Is-Nothing-Without-Focus-and-Endurance?).

 

…what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. Now matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal and make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it….

…the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it….

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed of the writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years….

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee results will come.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Short takes: Storytelling — illness narratives as healing tools

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Almost everyone’s life has been touched by a serious illness, whether their own or someone close to them. As with most everything else, we make sense of the experience through creating narratives. In a thought-provoking and insightful post on Nieman Storyboard (The implications of plot lines in illness and memoir), Victoria Costello discusses the use of “narrative therapy” in healing and how encouraging clients to change the story they are tellling of their illness can “can have a real impact on treatment and survival.”

Studies show, for example, that when a wife includes her husband in the story of her breast cancer, in effect changing the protagonist in her narrative from “I” to “we,” treatment becomes more effective and her chance of survival improves. In psychotherapy, when a client sees a redeeming value in the abuse he suffered in childhood – usually that the hardship has made him a stronger person – studies by Dan P. McAdams show that this “redemption narrative” provides the client a higher level of life satisfaction. (for the rest)

The discussion of the Arthur W. Frank’s work (the sociologist who developed the concept of the illness narrative) left me determined to check out his book The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. As a storyteller, I was drawn to Frank’s definition of three types of illness narratives: the restitution narrative (restoration “to good health due to the marvels of modern medicine”), the chaos narrative (“the illness moves randomly…from bad to worse and back to bad before getting worse again”), the quest narrative (“the ill person meets suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest”). A story may shift narrative structures as it goes on: not every descent into chaos is without hope and a seemingly Quixotic quest can find success. It is as true here as it is in the other stories that frame our lives.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Ethnographic Storytelling – another lesson from Haruki Murakami

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This is the second in a series of lessons from notable fiction writers that provide guidance (or at least inspiration) for core techniques used in ethnographic storytelling. The first entry was a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene (Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami). The second lesson, also from Murakami, addresses how to create convincing characters that blend the “factual” and the “true.”

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in creating characters

One need in any storytelling is to create compelling characters. As in fiction, ethnographies frequently require the creation of characters that represent more than a single individual: a typical member of a social group, whether it be a music fan, an elder in a community, a customer for a product, a technology user. Whether the story is addressing a problem or issue within the realm of ethnomusicology, anthropology, design or UX, convincing, compelling characters are a baseline requirement — if you can not believe in the characters, you will not believe in the points being made in the story. The following passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle illustrates the need to rely upon both the factual and the true in creating characters (and in storytelling in general):

He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were  not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he suceeded in telling the story. 

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Short takes: Design Storytelling & User Experience

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The widespread adoption of “design thinking” has included a reinsertion of storytelling into many aspects of business life. For a look at its use in product/service design, see, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley of IDEO; in crafting a business plan, see Business Model Generation (both influential books in spreading the design Gospel); in user experience research,  Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks has been recommended to me but has not made it to my reading list yet (UX hs not been one of my areas of exploration – yet).

All this is by way of prologue to an interesting article posted on UX Matters by Traci Lepore, The CSS of Design Storytelling: Context, Spine and Structure that looks at the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling in UX work. A short excerpt:

Storytelling is important not only to theater. I agree with Tom Erickson, who says in his article “Design As Storytelling” that design is a social, collaborative activity. I believe a UX designer’s role is to bridge all of the pieces that bring a design to life—from product management, marketing, user research, and design all the way through development. If that is true, communication is critical. Stories become an essential communication vehicle in the user experience world. Every day, we talk to users, bring back their stories, and co-create with them.

Major parts of our work are building personas, creating scenarios, and creating and using prototypes in usability testing—all of which connect our work to real users. Of course, we must also talk with various people within our organization to understand the case for a product’s business value, as well as relevant technical constraints, and negotiate a balance between all of these factors. But, in the end, to get buy in, we need to tell a compelling and engaging story about our design and its value. And we need to evangelize that story. To be successful in design, as well as theater, it makes sense to spend some time on the CSS—the Context, Spine, and Structure.


Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

The hipster — the “dead end” of Western civilization?

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"fuck u hipster cookie cutters / leave"

Walking to the Zen Center in San Francisco, I passed by the first piece of anti-hipster graffiti I’ve seen. The nearby Lower Haight neighborhood is a hipster preserve and maybe this indescript portion of Laguna Street is feeling a wave of hipster-fueled gentrification, which made me think of the slew of anti-yuppie graffiti that appeared in various neighborhoods in S.F. during the ’90s &  ’00s as that wave of gentrification crested. And yes, it’s true “yuppies kill culture” or at least replace it with a whole new set of aesthetics, which made me think  of the recent trenchant critique of the hipster subculture.

We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality.

 

Take a stroll down the street in any major North American or European city and you’ll be sure to see a speckle of fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh – initially sported by Jewish students and Western protesters to express solidarity with Palestinians, the keffiyeh has become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory.

 

Two quotes from Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization by Douglas Haddow in AdBusters 79 — a well-written and influential piece of cultural commentary that echoes a common perception of those of us outside the hipster circle that it is a counter-cultural movement devoid of cultural critique. And Haddow’s description of a hipster is pretty spot on except it leaves out the small hipster hat and scruffy beards on the male members of the hipster tribe (and at least here in San Francisco, they seem to be self-identified as DJ’s as often as not). While I’m not sure this is the first subcultural movement devoid of cultural critique, it may well be the first not orchestrated by commerce or politics. From all I can see it is a fundamentally grassroots movement and the lack of substance may be just what hipsters are looking for.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Short Takes: anti-marketing in the music industry

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Thanks to Derek Miller of Music Think Tank for turning me on to an interesting short article in the AtlanticFor Indie Bands, the New Publicity Is No Publicity.

It usually starts the same way. Some band posts a song to a music sharing site like Bandcamp or SoundClick. One person sends it to two people, who each send it to four, and so on, until it gets picked up by a music blog like Gorilla vs. Bear or Brooklyn Vegan and then aggregated on the Hype Machine. A week later, the band has caught the attention of record labels, tastemakers, and promoters.

But everyone wants to know, who is this act? They won’t do interviews, so all anyone has to go on is two MP3s and a low-resolution profile picture where they’re too far away from the camera to make out anyone’s face. And still, Pitchfork just gave their song the Best New Music designation. They’re booked for a South by Southwest showcase. Fifteen days have passed, and the band is now the blogosphere’s next big thing—even though the blogosphere couldn’t recognize the band on the street.

This is how underground bands come of age in 2011. (for the rest)

It’s all about creating interest through creating mystery.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 16, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Short takes: the art of field notes

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A nice piece by Betsy Mason on Wired‘s Wired Science blog on the under-appreciated value of hand-drawn illustrations in nature studies in the digital age — Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes. It set me to thinking about the value of  “artful” field notes outside of nature studies (where there is a strong tradition of artist-scientists, including the venerable work of Darwin and Audubon). In the “softer” sciences (humanities, social sciences and their hybrids), less value has been placed on the art of field notes. In my own work as an ethnomusicologist, the sketches, diagrams, and doodles that accompany my written observations of a musical event often provide insights that might otherwise fall through the cracks of a strictly left brain operation, focused on accuracy and completeness.

 

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

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