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29 April 2009

Renewing Faith in Human Decency

I just came across this site while reading my anthropology blogs, and thought it would be nice to share. I suggest watching the video - it's really heart-warming. The little lost robot is trying to make his way from one corner of the park to the other with the help of passers-by. Surprisingly, he succeeds, and this goes a long way to renewing my faith in human decency.
Then, in comes the cynic. I wonder if the people who helped this robot would be as kind to a robot that was ugly or horrifying, or how they would treat a simple mechanical object with the same kind of instructions. Does the fact that this robot is small, pudgy and child-like affect the way people respond to it? It would be an interesting project. What do you think?

21 April 2009

Children and their Drugs

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on whether or not school officials should be allowed to strip search students if they are suspected of carrying drugs. An article can be found here.
This really pisses me off. I heard the story on NPR this morning. A 13 year old girl (and honor student) was brought to the principle's office and questioned about drug possession. Another girl had been caught with a 400mg ibuprofen tablet (equivalent to 2 Advil), and had claimed (falsely) that the first girl had given it to her. When the 13 year old didn't admit and turn over the drugs (which she didn't have), the official searched her locker and her backpack (an act which was made legal by a previous Supreme Court decision). When they didn't find anything there they took her into a separate office and had her remove her clothes, leaving her standing in her underwear in front of the school officials. They searched every seam of her clothing and still didn't find anything, so they made her remove her bra and shake it out and shake out the crotch of her underwear.
In my opinion this is a severe breach of her rights, and tantamount to molestation. She was humiliated, and distressed. After the incident, the girl developed ulcers and was unable to return to school for several months. Ultimately, she was forced to transfer to another school.
The perverse fear of (some) drugs that exists in this country is truly disturbing. Sure, some children get sick or die as a result of consuming drugs, but is that any reason to subject (innocent, at least in this case) children to the humiliation of a strip search based solely on a vague suspicion that they are carrying an innocuous drug? I don't think so.
So far, the Supreme Court seems to be on the side of the school officials. If they overturn this decision and allow schools to conduct strip searches based on such flimsy evidence, they will be denying these kids rights granted to them by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and reinforcing an already authoritarian school system.
I think students should protest, if and when this decision is made; hordes of young teenagers with their pants stuffed full of Advil. They can't strip search you all!

15 April 2009

Evolutionary Economics

I just wanted to point you all to an article in the NY Times that explains the evolutionary background for Jeremy Trombley's Economic Principle #1.
Taxing, A Ritual to Save the Species

06 April 2009

Liberty vs. Liberty - The Final Showdown!

For the past 400 years we have been trapped between two competing concepts of freedom, which have had serious effects on the history of national and international policy. These were identified by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay titled "Two Concepts of Liberty."
On the one hand is "negative liberty," which is idealized as a space free from external influence where any individual can do what they like as long as it doesn't interfere with another person's freedom. This concept of liberty was founded on the philosophies of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It is the ultimate basis for the Neoliberal economics that has dominated the World for the past 30 years, and brought us the current economic crisis.
On the other hand we have "positive liberty," which seeks to make every person their own master. This concept, according to Berlin, grew out of the philosophies of Rousseau, Kant and ultimately Marx, and, through a metaphorical turn, became the basis for totalitarian ideologies. This was made possible by the recognition that, while a person should be master of him or herself, individuals could be "subject" to their passions. There is, therefore, a "higher self" which knows what is best, which most people do not have access too. This "higher self" is, ideally, embodied in the state, and the state is allowed to make the rational decisions of which we are incapable. In the words of Berlin,

"...[W]hat gives such plausibility as it has to this kind of language is that we recognize that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal ... which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt" (Berlin, 204, Italics mine).

"The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individutal to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who 'possess the highest insight of their time and people' - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society" (221).

We have been living under a regime of negative liberty for the last 30 years, and are now feeling the worst of its harmful effects. Now, the Obama administration is reviving positive liberty in the form of "Behavioral Economics."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who believe that Obama is trying to impose socialism on the U.S. I don't believe that that is his agenda, and, if it were, I wouldn't necessarily object. Rather, my uneasiness is based on the underlying assumptions about humans that are being made by the Behavioral Economists - that people are, for various reasons, incapable of making sound decisions on their own, and must be manipulated into the making the "right" choices. It removes the current crisis from its historical and political economic roots, as well as making broad claims about human nature that are not justified by cross-cultural analyses.

Ultimately either of these ideologies, taken to its extreme, can lead to qualtitatively different forms of totalitarianism. Berlin recognized this, but preferred the negative form as manifested in the ideology of 'pluralism,' "because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another" (241). The way I see it, as long as the competition between these two concepts of liberty persists, the best we can hope for is some kind of balance between the two, with neither one ever being allowed to dominate fully.
Instead of accepting this false dichotomy between positive and negative liberty, and striving for some kind of middle ground, I think it's time we tried something different. If Obama had consulted Anthropologists instead of economists, he might have received a different answer. One that doesn't make any assumptions or generalizations about human nature and one that is based on historical and cross-cultural analysis rather than Western ideology.
I think the answer lies in alternatives based on the concepts of Counter-Power and Reciprocity, both of which are ignored by modern Political and Economic theories, but which, nevertheless, persist even in modern societies. By applying these ideas to the more abstract sectors of our society, I believe we can finally free ourselves from the trap of Positive and Negative Liberty.

Berlin, Isaiah. "Two Concepts of Liberty." Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 191-242.

05 April 2009

PowerPoint and Linear Discourse

This is a short paper I wrote for my Linguistic Anthropology class. I think it's pretty interesting - I hope you enjoy it too.

Powerpoint and Linear Discourse
An article published in The New Yorker magazine in 2001 claims that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day (Parker, 2001). That number has almost certainly grown in the last eight years, but so have criticisms of the popular software. Edward Tufte, the most vocal of PowerPoint's critics, says that the software has an intrinsic “cognitive style” which forces itself upon presenters and audience members alike (Tufte, 160). Among the qualities of PowerPoint's cognitive style are the sequentiality of presentation, hierarchical organization of information, impoverished articulation of information and emphasis on gimmicky graphics and slide transitions. These qualities, he says, determine the style of the presentation, and diminish the presenters' abilities to transmit information effectively to the audience. However, my own experience in giving and receiving PowerPoint presentations is that their style and their effectiveness is determined more by the personality and ability of the presenter than by the software.
I chose to focus on one of Tufte's qualities in order to find out to what degree the cognitive style of PowerPoint affects the presentation of information. The quality I chose was the sequentiality of slide format. According to Tufte, “Slides serve up small chunks of promptly vanishing information in a restless one-way sequence” (Tufte, 160). This makes the presentation more like a movie or television than a “contemplative analytical method.” In some cases, this presentation method is useful, other times not. The sequence, he argues, should be determined by the character of the content, not by the software. In particular, he complains about what he refers to as “the dreaded slow reveal,” in which the presenter gradually unveils, line-by-line, a series of bullet points, often with obnoxious transitions that don't add anything to the content of the presentation. Instead, Tufte argues, presenters should offer paper handouts that allow the audience to control the sequence and pace of learning as well as providing spatial parallelism which “takes advantage of our notable capacity to reason about multiple images that appear simultaneously within our eyespans” (Tufte, 160).
I decided to evaluate empirically Tufte's claims for the sequentiality of PowerPoint presentations by observing my teachers who use the software and qualitatively evaluating the linearity of their presentations. I have four classes this semester, and all of them utilize PowerPoint to varying degrees. While the PowerPoint slides do proceed in a one-way sequential order, each professor found ways of working both inside and outside of the context of their slides to alter the flow of information.
For ease of explanation and anonymity, I will refer to Professors A, B, C, and D to describe the different styles of my professors. Professor A uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with many charts, diagrams, pictures, and some slow reveal text. She moves through the slides in a very linear fashion with few, if any, tangents. For the most part, she simply reads from the slides or explains the diagrams and pictures. She doesn't cycle back, unless explicitly asked to by a student. However, some cycling back is built in to her PowerPoint presentation in the form of repeated slides. Professor B also uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with some charts, diagrams and pictures and a lot of slow reveal text. She follows her slides faithfully as well, but has some tangents built in to them. For example, she will insert a picture on a slide which cues a related, but slightly off-topic story. Professor C uses generally basic PowerPoints with few pictures, no animation and no slow reveal text. She follows her slides intermittently, and inserts stories or tangents as the need or desire arises – some of which are relevant, others of which are not. Professor D rarely uses PowerPoint, and generally waits until the end of class to begin the slides. The beginning of class generally involves a question and answer session followed by several tangents including narratives, explanations, and discussions of particular themes. By the time he gets to his PowerPoint slides, there are only a few minutes left in class and he has to cycle through them very quickly. He touches on only the most important points, and cycles back and forth several times in the process. Figure 1 is a graphical depiction of my impression of these four presentation styles.

Fig. 1

It would be difficult for me to assess the effectiveness of these various styles and of PowerPoint in general. Some studies show that students prefer lectures with PowerPoint slides and feel that they learn more, but that there is no significant difference in learning between lectures with PowerPoint and those with overhead projectors (Bartsch). There does, however, seem to be a negative effect on student learning in PowerPoint lectures that use a lot of sound and graphics that are unrelated to the text (Bartsch). In terms of teaching, the results are mixed as well. I talked to One professor who rarely uses PowerPoint, but opted to use it this semester. She said that it has helped her to focus her presentation on the salient points, and stay within the time constrictions of the class (Gibson). In this sense, the sequential structure of PowerPoint may, in fact, be useful. On the other hand, she complains that she is often forced to compete with her slides for the attention of her students. In those cases, she is forced to impose herself physically between the students and the projection (Gibson).
PowerPoint, as with any software, has its benefits and its drawbacks, and its effectiveness as a pedagogical tool remains uncertain. However, it is important to note that PowerPoint doesn't determine the style of the presentation, at least with regard to sequentiality. I suspect that this is also true of the other qualities of PowerPoint's “cognitive style” that Tufte lists. As a result, the effectiveness of the software probably has more to do with the style of the presenter and the expectations of the students than it does with PowerPoint itself.

Works Cited
Bartsch, Robert A., and Kristi M. Cobern. “Effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in lectures..” Computers & Education 41.1 (2003): 77.

Gibson, Jane. "Re: Powerpoint." E-mail to the author. 1 Apr. 2009.

Parker, Ian. “ABSOLUTE POWERPOINT..” New Yorker 77.13 (2001): 76.

Tufte, Edward R. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2006.

03 April 2009

Thoughts on Ephemeral Communities

Ephemeral communities are ones which are either temporary or in a constant state of flux. Good examples are tourists, Burning Man and other "Festivals," and, of course, the internet. I think they would make a fascinating research topic for some nascent anthropologist. Unfortunately, it's not the area I want to go into, so I won't be doing that research. However, I do have some thoughts on the topic.
What interests me is how peoples' identity and behavior changes when they become part of an ephemeral community and leave their usual community behind. I don't have empirical evidence to back this up, but these are the ideas that I would hope to see some research address. First of all, it seems that identity becomes more fluid in ephemeral communities, and is, in some cases, completely dissociated from one's "normal" identity and even from one's physical self (especially in the case of the internet). As a result, a person can be anyone they want to be, can even change identities midstream if they so desire. A corollary to this is that identity becomes more superficial - it's less about one's underlying personality, and more about how one projects themselves using symbolic representation (i.e. clothing, costumes, avatars, etc.). A lack of identity markers might even make those around you uneasy, since they wouldn't know how to approach you or what norms to follow.
Anther effect appears to be that peoples' sense of risk is diminished, and they are more willing to engage in potentially dangerous activities that they wouldn't normally engage in within their "normal" communities. For example, in many cases, tourists will engage in drug use and become more sexually promiscuous when abroad when they wouldn't normally do those things back home. People on the internet will speak more freely, be more bold and express stronger opinions than they do in everyday life. This is related to the fluidity of identity and the anonymity that is inevitable in ephemeral communities.
I'm curious what makes people do these things? What functions do they serve? Is it a universal phenomenon, or is it mainly a feature of Western Industrial society?
I'd love to hear other thoughts on the subject, or relevant anecdotes. This blog itself is ephemeral, so don't be afraid of persecution! :)
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