June 2009

I’ve had a long, exhausting day moving house. no energy left to type the posts I wanted to write today. But I just came across something to share.

There’s an application on facebook where you can search to see how many sex offenders live in your zipcode. It gives your their photos. To quote from my facebook news feed (please excuse the edits):

“C found 982 sex offenders living near [zipcode]. Here are the five closest. [shows five photos] See how many live in your area. You may be surprised!

[comment from K] You win – so far you have the most SOs living near you!! No way can someone tell me that “you never know” – look at these peders and tell me you wouldnt now! Especially that last guy? Come….On…..

[comment from C] I hope none of my ex’s are on this list….”

holy. fucking. shit.

I was woken up a few nights back by my neighbours, which is no surprise. It happens all the time, but not usually as late as 3 in the morning. My apartment building and theirs face each other over a small garden that, rather annoyingly, has perfect acoustics: pretty much any conversation held on the balconies overlooking the garden travels directly into the windows on the other side, making it sound like the speaker is standing over your bed having a little chat. Its creepy.

So, having been woken up at 3 by them pulling up chairs and popping open the champagne, I then lay awake the next few hours trying not to listen to their conversation. It seems one of the girls had recently broken up with an errant boyfriend. He said this, she said that, then you’ll never guess what she said to him!!

Well I didn’t have to guess, because I heard it all intimate detail through my ear plugs. I can inform you that her ex really was a naughty boy. But I don’t care what he did with that girl from over the road. when sleep deprived I have very little sympathy. Being a light sleeper has turned me into a terribly grumpy neighbour.

Anyway, it was a few days later that I worked out why they were sitting on their balcony at that time of the morning. It was the solstice! And I totally missed it!

Last year I spent the solstice at the ancient site of Tiwanaku, waiting for the sun’s rays and Evo Morales alongside several thousand Bolivians. They year before, I was in Peru celebrating the neo-indigenous ritual of Inta Raymi at Cusco. The previous two years before that, I was at Stonehenge, dancing the night away. This year, I passed the solstice in bed in Chicago, listening to teenagers lamenting their love lives. It was a bit of a let down, to say the least.

I should have known it was getting close though, as I’d read in the media a few days before that the police were going to be cracking down harder on visitors to Stonehenge this year. Because that’s what’s really needed in the wake of all the great press the police have had recently: more aggression. If they were being heavy handed its a pity, because the two times I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the already over-intimidating police presence was the only blight on an otherwise incredible experience. Right up there on my top ten things I think everyone should do is spend a solstice at Stonehenge, while you still can.

Its strange to have spent this year’s solstice in Chicago though, and even stranger to have missed it altogether. Its made me feel a little despondent about still being here so late. Over the last few years I’ve made my annual visit of pseudo-pagan/neo-indigenous/reclaimed solstice celebrations at archaeological sites into something of a tradition. At some point I wanted to write something about the contemporary uses of archaeological sites in this way, but researching it is a tad tricky when you only get one night a year to compare with. Missing out on this year’s example is a bit of a faux pas.

As a result, however, the solstice has turned into a personal marker for me. Not a marker in the “welcome the sun”/”connect with mother earth”/”mark the new year”/”blah blah blah” kind of way. Its just that, every year for the last four, its been a little bit of reoccurring research for me. That I missed it this year just reinforced the sense of frustration I’ve had for the last six months, hanging around in Chicago waiting for the bureaucracy to work out so that I can leave and go do my fieldwork. That I’m still in Chicago for the solstice, and hence missed it, becomes just another sign of having wasted too much time waiting this year. So in my mind, the solstice has become a ritual that marks me being “in the field”, doing research. Where ever I am that day, it reminds me of where I was that day for the previous few years. The solstice doesn’t mark the middle of summer so much as marking me watching other people marking the middle of summer.

My friend Keith, the one who spent last year at the South Pole, was telling me last week that the mid-winter solstice is a really big event there. Given that they really are affected by the turning of the seasons there, the midwinter marks the point when they can start to look forward to some sunlight returning in a few months time, and eventually to going home. I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the archaeological tendency to interpret every damn monument built anywhere in the world and at any time in prehistory as a calender for the solstice. Partly because I think there has to actually be some reason for caring about the middle of summer/winter.

The South Pole experience I can understand. My reason is a bit off-the-wall and personal. The usual explanation given in the archaeological interpretations is that its necessary for agricultural communities to know when to plant and so on. But I wonder if that’s really the case. Do farmers really need to know the exact date iof the middle of summer in order to be able to plant? As opposed to, say, being able to judge the weather that particular year? I heard on the radio this morning, for example, that farmers in Illinois this year have been totally fucked by the torrential rain we’ve had in the last few weeks, which means they are struggling to get crops planted this week while its still just about dry enough and warm enough. So I’d assume there are so many variables to growing crops than the exact date of the middle of the season isn’t really that important. I’d be interested to ask some contemporary farmers who live somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme climate whether they even notice the solstice. Maybe our contemporary tendency to think every archaeological site is somehow aligned to the solstice has more to do with our own obsession with accuracy and dating.

This time next year I’m not sure where I’ll be. Quiet possibly back here in Chicago, enjoying a break after a year of fieldwork. Where ever I am I’ll make sure I pay more attention. If only because, if I’m going to miss it, I might as well get a decent nights sleep.

I’ve been hearing a lot of exciting things about Amazon’s Kindle recently, and as the time comes to leave for the field – and therefore leave behind all my books – its been sounding increasingly attractive. The $350+ price tag for the latest version aside, however, on doing some research I don’t think I’ll be getting one just yet. Although it sounds like it ought to be an academic’s dream, there are some serious drawbacks that, unless resolved sharpish, mean this product really won’t ever be an option for people like me.

First off though, what do I mean by “people like me”. Well academics in the humanities and social sciences whose jobs depend on reading a hell of a lot of books every day. In an average week I probably read about the equivalent of five books in their entirety, plus or minus a few hundred pages, but this is usually spread out over about 10-20 books or journal editions, each of which I might read a few chapters of. And I’m a lazy and slow reader in comparison to my friends. Most of these are library books, but in the four years since I moved to the US I’ve also collected a personal library that takes up 4 huge floor to ceiling bookcases: the essentials I just had to have my own copy of. And again, I’m lagging behind most other academics here.

So I’d assume that I’d be an ideal market for a Kindle. There can’t be that many other professions that require quiet so much book ownership and reading?

I’ve always been a little disparaging about my dear colleagues attitudes towards books. It frequently verges on the fetishistic, and tends to go hand-in-hand with a Luddite fear of computers. It amazes people that I prefer to keep all my journal reading to pdfs rather than printouts, try to write all my notes electronically rather than in notebooks, and never brought coursework books unless, having finished the course, I was really sure I’d want to read it again. Hence why my four bookcases are rather pathetic looking in most anthropologists’ eyes. I love a nice paperback to curl up with, but don’t have that dreamy-eyed attachment to the nostalgia of the printed page. (And don’t get me started about personalised name stamps…) Bring on the e-revolution, as far as I’m concerned!

But I’ve been noting a sense of palpable excitement among anthropologists about the Kindle, even though its out of most of our price ranges, and goes against the fuddy-duddy waffling about the joy of dog-eared coffee-stained 1st editions. I put it down to the fieldwork: one of the many, many things that makes fieldwork so annoying is not having access to any of your books. A Kindle could change that. Not only let you have the right reference book when you need it, or the timely copy of the book on interviewing techniques you never realised you would need.

But also the novels. The things that stop you going absolutely crazy when you’re holed up in your little house on your own trying desperately to escape from the reality that there are several more months to go and you hate everyone you’re meant to be studying. Or something like that. For when you need escapism, pure and simple, but its two days drive away from the nearest internet connection.

So anyway. Thinking this might be the answer to all my mounting anxieties, I started asking about and checking it out, and so far there seem to be two major, insurmountable problems:

1) The page numbers don’t stick.
2) The range of books on offer is crap.

The first relates to citation practices. Apparently in a Kindle book you can zoom in and out to make the font larger, but this changes the pagination of the whole book. Total disaster! Unless you can place a citation exactly so that someone else can find the same thing on the same page you are referencing, then its useless. Academic citation practices are not going to change in any hurry. I mean we still have to include the town where a book is published in citations for goodness sake! (something that always conjures up images in my mind of quaint 19th century scholars having to personally travel to New York/London or Cam:Mass to find a copy of a book I cite) Kindle’s gonna have to sort that one out before it can become usable for academics.

The second, though, makes me wonder more about whether the makers of Kindle even realise the market they are ignoring. A quick browse through Amazon’s site today revealed that, as of today, there are only 2,207 anthropology books available (not counting archaeology). In comparison, there are 3,239 books on cooking, 4,190 sports books, and 6,064 erotic fiction books (incidentally, all topics I would have assumed are better just practised, rather than read about… but there you go).

When I actually checked out the kind of books listed under “cultural anthropology”, most of them were utter crap anyway. Lots of Jared Diamond. A bit of Latour. No Sahlins.

As a quick test, I looked up everything I had on my desk at the time. So this is a roughly accurate reflection of what I’ve been reading this week, and whether I’d be able to find it on Kindle:

Biocapital, by Sunder Rajan – No
Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbiology, by Helmrich – No
Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, by David Turnbull – No
Space in the Tropics, by Redfield – No
Opening Pandora’s Box, Gilbert and Mulkay – No
Nuclear Borderlands, Joe Masco – No
Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, Stern – No
Landscapes and Labscapes, by Kohler – No
Science and an African Logic, H Verran – No.
Ella Minnow Pea, by MacAdams – No.
The Dictator’s Shadow, by Heraldo Munoz – Yes.
The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Bryatt – Yes.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Marcus – No!

So all I could get would be one of my novels, and the one biography I had on my desk. At the moment, then, its a bit of a let down. Ok so some of these are pretty obscure, but even the Marcus wasn’t available, and I don’t think any anthropologist can really contest that this is not a classic.

What I did find, though, is that for those that are available the price is bizarrely high. Lets say I was going to buy Latour’s Reassembling the Social. The paperback (new) price is $24, but the Kindle price is $18.56. How does that make *any* sense? Once the book is made, there’s barely any production cost at all. No paper, no printing, no shipping.

There has been a lot of discussion in academia about the demise of the academic press, the rising costs of producing the monographs that are a loss-maker for publishers, but that serve as the lifeblood of the humanities and social sciences. The print run of the average academic monograph is in the low hundreds, so the prices go up beyond the average grad student price range… . Less books are brought and production costs go up in a vicious circle.

Electronic books seem like the obvious solution out of the problem. The same few hundred hard copies would be sold to libraries and book fetishists. But the digital copy could be sent out at a fraction of the cost. It has the potential to totally revitalise the academic book market.

Yet we could take it even further. Over on the WAC mailing list in the last few weeks there has been a raging row about moving the contract to publish WAC’s journals and books over to Springer from Left Coast Publishers. The row started over whether working with Springer, a large corporation, undermined WAC’s ethical principles. (For more background on what WAC is and what it stands for: see here.) But it soon turned into a debate about the gulf in opportunity to access all academic publications between academics in richer and poorer countries. As temporarily employed adjunct faculty in the US complained they couldn’t afford WAC’s $40 books, professors from African nations pointed out they needed to take second jobs to get together the $20 membership fee.

WAC, like many anthropology organisations, tries to solve the disparity by having two tiers of membership fees, depending on where in the world you are coming from. This extends to journals as well, with two (sometimes more) tiers of pricing. With digital books, if the production costs are cut to a minimum, could we do the same thing?

Well. Only when Kindle and other e-book makers realise that we exist as a market. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for it – but I’m not holding my breath.

Another passing-on-a-link post here. Via Jodi Dean, I just came across a great essay on Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. Basic principle:

Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.

Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.

… Any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

Its well worth reading the essay in full, and the events in Iran over the last few days make it even more pertinent right now.


I found the discussion of China particularly interesting: not only because of the kind of punning that would warm the cockles of Professor Silverstein’s heart; also the observations on the acceptability of certain forms of censorship (politics yes, cute cats no).

Some Chinese bloggers have responded by being extremely creative in their use of images. Some Chinese bloggers began posting images of river crabs on their blogs. The joke is that the term for “river crab” sounds very similar to the word “harmonize”, a term that had become slang for “censored” – “My blog just got harmonized.” The term “harmonized” became so popular that it became blocked. So Chinese bloggers began to refer to their blogs as having been “river crabbed”. The watches are a pun on “the three represents“, a political philosophy put forward by Jiang Zemin. This is also a commonly blocked term, so has been rewritten as “wears three watches”… which explains the oddly dressed river crab.

Here’s the thing – for the vast majority of Chinese internet users, they’re encountering a much more free information environment than their parents experienced. Michael Anti argues that Chinese society is much freer than the US in terms of personal behavior, especially around premarital sex and homosexuality. The vast majority of young Chinese are enjoying these personal freedoms and are willing to accept a world in which political freedom is somewhat constrained.

China’s censorship genius is that they’ve found a way to let people have their cute cats and have censorship as well. While China will block sites like Human Rights Watch, they won’t block domestic Web 2.0 sites, and hence the collateral damage from blocking banal content doesn’t draw non-activists to become aware of activist issues.

Just thought I’d share this straight up as I’m going to be taking a few days to mull over all that’s in there. Any thoughts from people more up-to-date on the crypto/censorship world?

[Soundtrack to this post – sorry, couldn’t resist]

I ran into my friend Keith a few weeks ago, who I hadn’t seen in a long while. The main reason for us losing contact was that he had spent most of 2008 living in almost complete isolation in a research centre at the South Pole. I spent a few hours talking to him about his experiences, and think its one of the most fascinating stories I’ve heard in a long time.

He kept a blog while there, which captures some of the weirdness and beauty of the place, as well as his incredible enthusiasm and sense of wonder at being, in effect, locked up in a tin can on ice in total darkness for a year.

You can read it here. My favorite bits: the 300 club, the tomato slices, and the giant puff balls!

Its an embarrassing time to be British right now. This “expense scandal”? Its humiliating. Particularly in Chicago, of all places. The reaction I keep getting from friends is unanimous: You British are so backward you can’t even get political corruption right.

Illinois recently earnt itself the quote: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” (Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office). Yes, from the perspective of a US state that has two governor’s in jail for corruption and one on the way, and a Mayoral oligarchy that has seen the Daley father and son team rule the city for 40+ years with virtually no opposition, quibbling about expense claims that were, after all, legal, seems a bit ridiculous.

As a dear friend so kindly (and gleefully) pointed out to me, the sheer pettiness just reinforces every annoying stereotype of quaint British eccentricity.

Headlines in Italy: Berlusconi holds debauched parties with gaggles of teenage girls and pin up models, flying them in on airforce jets and appointing the most attractive to his cabinet.

Headlines in Britain: Cameron claimed £947.29 more than he ought to, but will pay it back.

I’m not saying that I condone corruption. Chicago’s famously laid back ‘who gives a shit’ attitude to being robbed blind by its public officials stopped being amusing around the time I noticed the open wounds of poverty that are ripped into the face of the city. The dirt. The decrepit public transport. The third world standard roads. The weekly fatal shootings in public schools. The segregation. The accusations of police brutality and torture.

No, I’m not saying Britain needs to step up to “compete on the world stage” when it comes to crooked politics. My point is that that calling this farce over expenses “corruption”, dignifying it with status of a “scandal”, is to seriously misunderstand both what corruption really is, and where the real problems with British politics lie. So knowing what we are doing right (i.e. not being like Illinois), and what we are doing wrong.

The problem with the expenses is that MPs were not able to vote themselves a higher salary, and so civil servants created a way to give them some other form of compensation. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a second home allowance: on the contrary, it means that people other than millionaires can, potentially, be politicians, which I’m entirely in favour of. Anything that proactively enables more diversity in our political representatives should be encouraged.

Were the MPs “greedy”? I think its hard to say, because its difficult to condemn the impulse for personal profit when it is, after all, the underlying principle of capitalism (and in particular neoliberalism). Its also impossible to call them “greedy” when they were actually doing what they were told they should do. Besides which, if it really does seem like they were being greedy, the solution lies in taking a more nuanced look at the kind of politics we have right now, rather than voyeuristic pawing over receipts in the press to the accompaniment of some cliched class-tinged indignation.

This situation came about because it was not politically expedient for MPs to give themselves a pay rise. As long as decisions are made on the basis of whether or not it will lose or gain votes, then our politics will be superficial, shallow and hysterical. Beyond this issue of pay, why are politicians so afraid of making decisions that, while unpopular, need to be made in the name of social justice? For humane immigration laws. For gay marriage and abortion rights. For supporting the NHS and free education. Because it might cost them votes, and losing votes is more important than having a fair and free society.

But above all, what really depresses me is that this whole farce with expenses has caused more debate about the political system, and come closer to bringing down the government, than any other issue in the last decade. An illegal war couldn’t do it. The insidious undermining of the right to free education hasn’t raised the slightest whiff of a protest. Two police murders of innocent men passed without problem. Even the economy crashing down around our ears at the same time as a a global pandemic hasn’t caused as many problems as this cuffufle over legal expense claims!

But a duck house and a few dvd players? If this is what the British public really want to get angry about, then we really do have a problem.

Police blogs seem to be much in the news these last few days. When Britain’s Bobbies aren’t accidentally killing protester’s by beating the shit out of them, or punching someone they just tasered in the head, it seems their blogging about it.

One such detective is in the news for having just lost the right to keep his blog anonymous. I’ve only just heard about this case, and must admit to never having read the (now deleted) blog, but I expect that its going to generate some interesting discussions over the next few weeks about the concept of anonymity and privacy on the internet.

In a nut shell, it appears that Richard Horton (aka NightJack, the author of a popular exposé on his life in the force) has just lost an injunction against The Times that would have prevented them from exposing his real name. Horton had protested that if they did so, it would put him “at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing confidential information about prosecutions within the force”.

My immediate reaction to this is to find it just a little bit ironic that its a law enforcer who is seeking protection from the law for being exposed for doing something potentially unlawful. I don’t blame the judge for turning down his request. His case for anonymity is built on an argument that he thinks he’s done something wrong he should be punished for.

But the intelligence of this particular copper aside, there’s the bigger debate about internet anonymity, and blogging in general. Given that I’m all still excited about getting back into the blog zone, here’s some half baked thoughts on the topic.

I see this as falling somewhere in that googy grey zone of morality that usually comes up in discussions of paparazzi intimidation of famous people. The argument is always that people who choose to step into the limelight can’t expect to have privacy. By opening up one’s life, one looses all rights to not be photographed 24 hours a day, to not have people camp out on your doorstep and scream abuse at you, and so on. There’s something utterly obnoxious about this argument, but its an argument that seems to stick.

For bloggers, or any writer in fact who chooses to share some aspect of their life, I guess the same argument could be made. Putting yourself up on a public stage means giving away some rights to privacy and anonymity. Long before the internet, a pseudonym was no guarantee one’s identity wouldn’t be discovered either. I assume that the journalist didn’t have to work too hard to find out who he was. Damned by his own keyboard, so to speak. The closer it is to an authentic expression of reality, the easier it is to find out who the “real” person is.

The question taken from the oppostie direction would be, does it make a difference if we know that he is Richard Horton as opposed to NightJack? Why did the Times want to expose him? The hunt to find the “real” person seems to be something peculiarly urgent: if we find out Shakespeare was really Marlow, or Bacon, or Elizabeth I, this somehow will make his/her poetry and plays more or less real? I’m sure there’s a world of literary and authenticity theory that we could conjure up here. Still. At some point does it only matters who Pauline Réage was as opposed to Anne Desclos, when we think we know either of them beyond the page. What is this urge to uncover the “real” person, the truer experience, the concrete behind the spectacle.

And then there is also the accusation, made by The Times, that in writing about real, ongoing cases, he put police investigations at risk. The failure to properly anonymize his own writing seems remarkably stupid, up there with the infamous, ongoing Jared Diamond case, and makes me wonder whether bloggers and journalists need their own form of an IRB.

Maybe, in the end, the simple answer is that he should have just called it fiction. There’s a thriving tradition of writing first ‘novels’ that are thinly disguised biographies.

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