Deciphering Culture

Short takes: Derek Silvers “Anything You Want”

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I’m a little wary of touting the work of “success gurus” (I can’t help flashing on the Chris Farley SNL motivational speaker character Matt Foley) but I make a few exceptions — Derek Silvers is one of those and he has a great trailer for his new book, “Anything You Want” published by fellow guru Seth Godin’s Domino Project.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

Ethnographic Storytelling – a lesson from Haruki Murakami

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A while ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose (Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction). This fascination arose from my longstanding dissatisfaction with the lifeless quality of so much ethnographic prose and conviction that good research could be related in good writing. While I applaud the efforts of writer-scholars such as Tobias Hecht (After Life: An Ethnographic Novel to open up new territory for ethnographic representation, I have to admit that I have  yet to read a work that successfully utilizes fictional techniques to create a convincing and engaging ethnography. The question arises if it’s simply a problem of blending two very different skill sets: those of a researcher and those of a writer? But so many fiction writers have done such thorough research and then related it in masterful prose — if you want proof, read the opening section of Don Delillo‘s Underworld , which recreates the deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant race. Maybe, it is best to turn to fiction writers for tips on how to tell a story. Below is a lesson from Haruki Murakami in how to set a scene in what may be the first entry in an occasional series here on Deciphering Culture.

A lesson from Haruki Murakami in setting the scene

One need in any storytelling is to set the scene. Sometimes, you do that by (in cinematic terms) taking a long shot to set the context before moving in to capture the details. Murakami is a master of this and often uses this device to set a scene. For example, this passage from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

Like a make-believe bird in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details. Each detail carries much significance, of course, I check each one in turn examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next,there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little.

Storytelling

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The narrative thread that holds together my various pursuits as a scholar, journalist and consultant is a fascination with the power and meaning of stories. Storytelling — the oldest form of history, religion and entertainment — is valuable for its ability to instill meaning into a narrative (which may have begun as a jumble of events), to create connections with other times and places, and to take us away, if only for a brief time, from the pressures and mundanity of everyday life. The first inkling that what I was doing was storytelling was when I was collecting oral histories in North Richmond, California to document the life cycle of a nightclub district and what its presence and eventual loss had meant for the community. It was my first serious research project and I was approaching it with all the gravitas of the typical graduate student. Fortunately, my wife was enthusiastic about the project, particularly the power of telling stories to document history and not lose a human face, and awakened me to the fact that what I was actually doing was collecting stories and weaving them together to tell the story of an important period in the life of their community. It was a defining moment that changed how I approached my work — although it took a number of years until I was fully aware that what I was doing as an ethnomusicologist was storytelling. Recently, I have been struck by how often I stumble across the adoption of storytelling as an label for what people do in a wide variety of pursuits — healing, journalism, spiritual practices, design, public relations to name a few — and sometimes the cynic in me raises its snarky head but, more and more, I see it as possibly being a marker of a paradigm shift, returning the human face to a wide variety of pursuits.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Storytelling

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Short takes: different types of “creative metropoles”

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Interesting project winding up in September 2011 looks at the different strategies taken by eleven European cities to develop and support their creative industries. The Creative Metropoles project is based on a premise I share and would like to see shared in the U.S.: “a facilitator of innovation, creative industries are essential for the development of other sectors.” The cities (as different as Berlin and Riga, Amsterdam & Warsaw) will each identify their own best practices and learn from each other’s experiences — “the ambition is not only to present the good practices but also deal with current problem issues and generate new knowledge and approaches.” The project is working in 5 policy areas:

1. structure of the public support for creative industries

2. business capacity and internationalisation of creative industries

3. space for activities by creative industries and creative city districts as creative incubators

4. funding schemes for creative industries

5. demand for the outputs of creative industries, including municipalities in the role of consumers.

The final report, particularly the appendices (Good Practices from European Cities) offers an interesting view of the diversity of approaches to developing creative industries that have had significant success and point to the need to both localize (i.e., collaboration for mutual benefit among Berlin) and reach across national boundaries (i.e., relationship building between artisans and designers in Fes, Morocco and Amsterdam). There’s a lot of material and I’ve just been browsing but my first impression is there’s a lot to learn.c

Short Takes: Maintaining work / life balance

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Orhan Pamuk, turkish novelist. The photo is de...

Orhan Pamuk (Image via Wikipedia)

Keeping focus when working at home

I am currently spending a lot of time at my desk at home working on a writing project and finding it difficult to maintain a separation between personal and professional time — there always seems like there’s time to do another load of laundry, the dog is asking for a walk and….

Work / life balance is always difficult to maintain but with our identities increasingly defined virtually, even maintaining physical demarcations between our professional and private lives can become problematic. Needed down time and self care often fly out the window, often accompanied by decreased productivity. Lately, I have found that one effective response is to ritualize the separation between my professional and personal spaces, even going so far as leaving home in the morning to walk to work (ending up back where I started) — an idea I appropriated from novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Orhan Pamuk: I have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination. They kill the demon in me. The domestic, tame daily routine makes the longing for the other world, which the imagination needs to operate, fade away. So for years I always had an office or a little place outside the house to work in. I always had different flats. But once I spent half a semester in the U.S. while my ex-wife was taking her Ph.D. at Columbia University. We were living in an apartment for married students and didn’t have any space, so I had to sleep and write in the same place. Reminders of family life were all around. This upset me. In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office. (from an interview in: The Paris Review, Fall/Winter 2005)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

Artistic practice, relaxation and a bit of whimsy help develop your creativity

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Photograph of Brian Eno at a 2006 Long Now Fou...

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Brian Eno has been a creative force for decades now, producing a wide range of entertaining and challenging music with an admirable collection of collaborators. Thanks to 99% (Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno by Scott McDowell) for pointing me to a new e-book by Eric Tamm, BRIAN ENO, HIS MUSIC AND THE VERTICAL COLOR OF SOUND, that “delves deeply into Eno’s creative process.” What Eno himself calls (from Tamm’s book):

…a practice of some kind … It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.

McDowell presents a list of  tools Eno has relied upon to assist the creative process when he gets stuck — No 5, the Oblique Strategies deck of cards is the bit of whimsy, something all creative workers needs to get the juices flowing again.

1. Freeform capture. Grab from a range of sources without editorializing. According to Tamm, one of Eno’s tactics “involves keeping a microcassette tape recorder on hand at all times and recording any stray ideas that hit him out of the blue – a melody, a rhythm, a verbal phrase.” He’ll then go through and look for links or connections, something that can form the foundation for a new piece of music.

2. Blank state. Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example, Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas, only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.

3. Deliberate limitations. Before a project begins, develop specific limitations. Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”

4. Opposing forces. Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas. Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.” Dissimilar background and approaches can often evoke fresh thinking.

[oblique strategy 5.9.10]: "Abandon Desir...

Image by courtneyBolton via Flickr

5. Creative prompts. In the ‘70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a series of prompts modeled after the I Ching to disrupt the process and encourage a new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favorably to.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm

“Pianist Omar Sosa is on a musical and spiritual mission” (@ SF Weekly)

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Cover of "Afreecanos"

Cover of Afreecanos

Omar Sosa’s exploration of the shared roots of the musics of the Black Atlantic is documented in an impressive body of work. A number of his albums are regularly featured in my own personal soundscape: Prietos (2001), Sentir (2002), Afreecanos (2008), and the brilliant, transformative Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009). If you are not familiar with his work, I heartily recommend that you check it out. On Wednesday May 18, the Omar Sosa Afreecanos Quintet, featuring Bay Area Latin music icon John Santos, played Yoshi’s San Francisco. Below is the preview I wrote for SF Weekly.

Omar Sosa Mixes Jazz and Electronica into an Afro-Cuban Cocktail

By Jeffrey Callen Wednesday, May 18 2011

Pianist Omar Sosa is on a musical and spiritual mission. His music, steeped in Afro-Cuban and jazz influences, melds traditional and modern sounds (and aesthetics) to show the unseen threads that connect cultures throughout the African diaspora. His mission has taken him into myriad musical settings that have been documented on an impressive array of recordings. His rare stop in the Bay Area at Yoshi’s this week is a sort of musical homecoming.

The Cuban-born pianist spent three years in the Bay Area in the ’90s — a period that marked a turning point in his career. “It was the first time I did what I felt,” Sosa explains in a phone interview. He began exploring the roots of African music a decade earlier, but it was here that his sound took shape. Sosa particularly admired the vision and work of percussionistJohn Santos, who was already an established figure on the Bay Area Latin music scene. Santos became pivotal, offering moral support and hiring Sosa to tour with his Machete Ensemble. Wednesday’s show will see the two reunited, with Santos performing as a featured sideman in Sosa’s Afreecanos Quintet.

Sosa’s group formed to record the albumsPromise (2007) and Afreecanos (2008); it has appeared in various configurations and included more than a dozen musicians from the Americas, Africa, and Europe. It has become “more a collective than a group,” Sosa says. In addition to Sosa and Santos, the version that will appear atYoshi‘s includes drum ‘n’ bass pioneer (and founding member of New York City’s Black Rock CoalitionMarque Gilmore, bassist Childo Tomas from Mozambique, and Berkeley nativePeter Apfelbaum on saxophone and flute. Apfelbaum was another of Sosa’s inspirations when he moved to the Bay Area. He remembers that the first concert that made him exclaim “That is the kind of music I want to make” was the final San Francisco show by Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a legendary jazz group Apfelbaum formed while still in high school. (Apfelbaum relocated to New York to play with jazz icon Don Cherrysoon after Sosa hit the Bay Area, but remains one of Sosa’s musical heroes.)

Since he departed the Bay Area in 1998, Sosa has stayed connected, regularly releasing albums on Oakland-based Otá Records that document his ongoing musical explorations. He draws upon a diverse array of traditions to create an eclectic body of work. Ritual sounds of Cuban Santería orMoroccan gnawa blend with straight-ahead Latin jazz, big band horn charts, and hard bop; contemplative moments on ngoni or piano are flavored with electronic samples.

Sosa’s recorded output is driven not by commercial calculations but by what he calls “spiritual messages.” When Sosa’s spirits call him to record an album, he says he has to do it right then, or “the message will kill me.” Last year, when he was in New York City with two days off, Sosa received the message that he “needed to heal himself.” So his manager found an available studio, and Omar played solo improvisations on piano, electric piano, and electronic percussion for two hours. When he finished, he had recorded the raw tracks for his latest release, Calma (2010).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sosa’s best ensemble work features a thrilling drive and intensity along with the vibrant interplay of sounds — see Prietos (2001), Sentir (2002), Afreecanos (2008), and the brilliant, transformative Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009). The introspective, laid-back Calma has a different kind of eloquence, contemplative and restrained without the drive and diversity of textures that characterize his ensemble work. Sosa says it’s the only one of his albums he currently listens to: “When you feel calm, you see life in front of you more clearly. … You have time to see things and choose in the moment.” Expect a variety of emotions, along with extraordinary performances, when Sosa’s Afreecanos Quintet takes the Yoshi’s stage.

Short takes: Music industry trends in “recommendation & discovery”

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I spent a good portion of Monday at the latest edition of the SF Music Tech Summit. My name tag this time said “SF Weekly” instead of “Deciphering Culture” (I asked for dual identification) so a lot of people buttonholed me to get coverage for a new service. Not surprisingly, most of them fell into the “recommendation and discovery” segment although none of the pitches left me convinced of the efficacy of any of the new spins on the work of the established players. Also,  not surprisingly my blog post for SF Weekly’s All Shook Down blog focused on a SRO panel that featured some of the heavy hitters in R & D. The relevant excerpt below.

Flickr/aquababe

S.F. MusicTech Summit: How Do Listeners Want to Discover New Music?
All Shook Down

  • by Jeffrey Callen on 5/10/11 @ 7:29 pm

….The standing-room-only “Recommendation & Discovery” panel offered one of the more interesting glimpses into the internal logic of the music industry machine. Chaired by Kevin Arnold of IODA (also creator of S.F.’s annual Noise Pop festival), the panel brought together some of the heavy hitters in the music search business, including MOGRovi CorporationThe Filter (a Peter Gabriel brainchild), and Slacker.

An interesting discussion on the nuts-and-bolts of music recommendation and discovery services offered some contradictory food for thought. Music consumers looking for recommendations “prefer a man-to-machine to a man-to-man relationship” (David Hyman of MOG), and if you focus on personalized user specs, you get information that is increasingly “granular” (David Roberts of The Filter). Yet R & D is a “human-centric task,” said Adam Powers of Rovi. Powers also asserted that when Rovi, a giant in the R&D world, was looking at other companies to acquire, it found 250 that thought they had R&D nailed. But from the number of R&D company reps in attendance at the SF Music Tech Summit, it seems that either that news hasn’t gotten out, or nobody’s actually nailed it.

—-

All Shook Down

  • by Jeffrey Callen on 5/10/11 @ 7:29 pm

Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction

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One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:

Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.

Goals of the Workshop

This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.

And added to my reading  list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:

Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.

Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.

With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.

A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting

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On the value of ethnography in a business setting (from very different perspectives)

(1) part of a series on the PARC blog last year)

Ethnography in industry: Objectives?

27 April 2010 | Victoria Bellotti

I – and I imagine you – have encountered a lot of confusion, and misconceptions, about ethnography. Especially relative to the many methods that can be used to inform technology design. This post is the first of a series intended to clarify a few things about this methodology.

What is ethnography?

First: there are some helpful definitions that can be found through a simple search.

In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll also summarize it (albeit inadequately, no doubt) for you: a holistic, in-person, and qualitative approach to the study of human behavior and interaction in natural settings.

But rather than expound on the semantic aspects of ethnography in my very first blog post here, I’d really rather respond to the obvious and eminently reasonable question I often hear in my work as a researcher in the field of user-centered technology innovation:

“What’s it good for, in my business?”

Ethnography adapted for industry

In today’s hard-nosed and often economically trying times, ethnography can be seen as a tactical weapon enabling companies to gather new insights and thus gain advantage over their competition.

Traditional ethnographic studies were conducted at a relatively leisurely pace. They had, at least as far as I can tell, no particular useful or focused objectives other than to uncover as much as possible about a culture or practice of interest in an unfettered manner. (Indeed, having an explicit agenda was considered to be rather bad form and was liable to get you kicked out of polite ethnographic circles…wherever those might have been.)

Out of the academic Garden of Eden, modern ethnographers have been driven to move and produce compelling results faster, while operating within a number of budgetary constraints and oft-conflicting business demands.

Ethnographers’ data collection and analysis methods have therefore been condensed, recombined, adapted – both systematically and as-needed – to meet these business demands. We’ll describe the methods to this madness in our next post, but in this post (below) I categorized some of the commercial objectives for which these methods are applied. (for the rest)

Ethnography & Design Thinking

While conducting research for my next presentation (as part of Module 2), I am becoming intrigued and interested (REALLY interested) in Ethnography and then on a separate note, Design Thinking.

The following excites me in relation to ethnography:

-’ its a tool for better design’…..’informs design by revraling a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.’…….’a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.’……’helps…create more compelling soloutions’…’it lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others.’…….’allows us to discover meaning, understand norms…make communications powerful…be worldy….observe reality….identify barriers….’

In a previous job, I had a boss who would say things like “We’re great, sure everyone on the street is talking about us, they all want to come here, people tell me all the time.” Getting Increasingly frustrated by this (and his lies) I eventually said “How do we know? What research have we conducted? The only facts we have is the amount of profit at the end of the year! Why don’t we just get out there and ask questions?”

If anything, adpoting a ethnographic model of research will help me understand the group / community of interest I eventually end up collaborating with. The following diagram, recently sourced also intrigues me and brought the areas of ethnography and design thinking to my forefront and attention. (for the rest)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 30, 2011 at 11:15 am

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