Category Archives: Anthropology

How U2 saved us from the 80s

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I am not a music person, in that I can name musicians or songs, or, Heqet forbid, actually sing. In fact, music is to me something like tiny physics or higher math. I know it is interesting, and I like to read or watch well written stories about it, but don’t ask me to explain anything. So, if I were you, I’d stop reading this post right about now.

I am a fan of U2, and I had assumed I was a fan because they make good music. But more recently, I realized that I like U2 also because they saved us from the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Metalica, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Journey, or Motorhead. Probably. Well, to be honest, I can’t name a single song any of them ever made. But my impression is that most of these bands were continuing traditions that date back to the late 1960 (which ran from 1971 to 1977), and not doing a lot of innovation. Doesn’t matter, I’m not an expert. But I’m pretty sure U2 innovated.

Their greatest album is probably Joshua Tree. A couple of years ago I went to the Joshua Tree (revival?) concert performance at the Big Corporate Thingie Stadium* in Minneapolis. It was the best of concerts, it was the worst of concerts. Best because it was one of the great bands of the century (last century; too early to tell for this century) performing their arguably best album with all their own retrospect sewn in. Worst because Big Corporate Thingie Stadium was not built for musical performance despite the oversize duvet covers they hung on some of the walls. That stadium was built, more than any other stadium built to date since Roman times, to have the worst acoustics possible, which is necessary to confabulate the visiting offense during football games.

Eagle Rock produced a documentary on The Joshua Tree (1999), which includes conversations with U2’s members. (Did you know one of them is named The Edge? Well, that’s Mr Edge to you. Me and The, we’re on a first name basis. I wrote him a letter recently. It started out, “Dear The,” But I digress.) Anyway, the conversations are revealing because they pin down the ways U2 stepped aside from what was going on, musically, in the middle of the 1980s, and how they scraped against, and punctured through, the envelope everyone else was operating in. The thing is, U2’s hard turn from the usual direction “immediately catapulted the band into the category of rock superstars.” This catapulting caused the innovation by this group to be fully real, to not just fade away. Innovation, breaking away from traditional producing methods, paying attention to the rhythm section (aka drums), producing the album in a house instead of a studio, embracing encouragement over competition. All these things and more.

Joshua tree was in part a response to an ongoing takeover of of America by extremist Republicans (not recognized by most at the time) and similar deterioration of humanity going on elsewhere, and thumb in the nose to the stolid keepers of the musical way of the time (see list of bands above).

I won’t discuss the how or why here, but the album came along at a time in my life that was well suited to that particular soundtrack. That, however, means almost nothing compared to the meaning for the mothers in Chile.

A century and a half ago, my ancestors came forth on this continent because they chose a risky move over near certain starvation in Ireland. Just under a half century ago my distant cousins came forth to address America with a series of questions and inspirations. When you think about it, there is nothing more American than starvation. It also turns out that there is nothing more American than a foreign band adopting us as their errand child. Also, just so you know, Yucca brevifolia is endemic, nothing more American than the Joshua tree.

Songs on this album:
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Exit
Mothers of the Disappeared

U2 Band Members past and present:
Bono
Ethe Edge
Adam Claton
Larry Mullen Jr
Dik Evans
Ivan McCormick


*I prefer not to partake in the “naming rights” scam, thank you. I refer here to the stadium the Vikings play in.


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Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?

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Imagine that there is a trait observed among people that seems to occur more frequently in some families and not others. One might suspect that the trait is inherited genetically. Imagine researchers looking for the genetic underpinning of this trait and at first, not finding it. What might you conclude? It could be reasonable to conclude that the genetic underpinning of the trait is elusive, perhaps complicated with multiple genes, or that there is a non-genetic component, also not yet identified, that makes finding the genetic component harder. Eventually, you might assume, the gene will be found. Continue reading Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?


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How long is a human generation?

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How long is a generation, you ask?

Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.

In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)

More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.

A Biological Generation


…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”

A Dynamic Generation


…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.

Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.

In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.

A Cultural or Societal Generation


…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

  • Lost 1914
  • Greatest 1923
  • Silent 1935
  • Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
  • Generation X 1968
  • Generation Y 1975
  • Generation Z or I 1992

(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)

Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.

Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.


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Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.

In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.

The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:

Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.

And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.

I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.

So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.

Fox, Robin.Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Lutz, Catherine. Reading National Geographic

Teh Wiki. Generation.

Teh Wiki List of generations.


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Do not read this important message!

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Do not read this until you have time for the equivalent of one or two chapters in a book. But if you can settle down for a while and you care about messaging, and your copy of “don’t think of an elephant” is across the room and you don’t feel like getting up, dig in. Also, please respond, tell me what you think. This is a set of thoughts in progress.

Here is my message: Use training in “Framing,” “Race Class Narrative,” or similar ways to improve your communication abilities to become a better producer of messages in the same way an athlete uses strength and aerobic cross training to become a better athlete. Message training is to the hopeful messenger what running 5 miles a day and pumping iron three times a week is to an amateur softball player. You will get better. Continue reading Do not read this important message!


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The Third Worlding

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One day I returned home and realized I had forgotten the shampoo. It was a devastating revelation.

You are probably thinking, “First World problem,” right? Well, it wasn’t because at the time I was living in the actual co-called “Third World.*”

Home, for me at the time, was one of the most remote non-polar research sites ever. “Going to the store” meant driving across nearly impassible roads for a day, a ride that would cause enough damage to the old Land Rover to require some $500 of repair on average. Then a few days in a sort of city (Isiro, Zaire) where I would spend considerable effort assembling the food and other supplies for a stint as long as I could manage, hopefully 4 to 6 weeks. Basically, as much as the old Land Rover could hold. Then, the trip back. So, going to the store was a week out of my research time, costly, and dangerous (because of the roads).

I had taken a shower the morning of my return to the field, at my friend Bwana Ndgege’s house, and left the shampoo in the bathroom. Yes, devastating.

What I did not know at the time was this. Later that very morning, Bwana Nndege saw the bottle of shampoo in the bathroom. He picked it up and walked out in front of his house, which was located in a part of the city where one might see people waking around on their daily business, but not too many people. Shortly, he saw a man walking down the street, and hailed him over. Bwana Ndege did not know this man.

“Say, do you happen to know the researchers that live in Ngodingodi, a research village down the road past Wamba, on the Mambasa road?”

“There is still a road there?” the man asked.

“Truth be told, not really a road any more, but they go town there with their land rover. The blue one with the different color doors. Know it?”

“No, not really, never heard of any of this,” the man answered.

So, Bwana Ndege handed him the shampoo, and said, “Well, anyway, could you pass this on to someone who might? They left it here this morning.”

“OK, no problem,” the man said, taking the shampoo.

Now, I should mention, that the good people of the Eastern Congo are averse to crime, and are honest. There are, of course, criminals there just like anywhere else, but such is not your average Zairois. At the same time, a bottle of shampoo is a commodity people save up for, feel lucky to have, and desire. Handing this man the bottle of shampoo with only the vaguest instructions or prospects like this would be similar to finding a random person on the street of an American city and handing them a short stack of loose ten dollar bills and asking them to pass it on to someone who might pass it on to someone etc. with the hope that it gets to a city 500 miles away, and to a particular vague address. It just would not work.

So what happened next?

About three weeks after I returned, sans shampoo, I was up in the hilltop research camp working on some notes, when I smelled something different. I asked one of the local people who worked there what that might be. She sniffed the air, and said, “Maybe the nomads?”

There is a local tribe called the Bahama (or Wahama, or just Hama) who rarely pass through with their small herds of cattle. Cattle don’t live in this forest, and can’t survive the parasites, but a couple/few times a year, a Hama man will pass through with a couple dozen head. Probably, some circumstance in his life and business makes passing through a zone where some of his cattle will get sick better than going some other route. One can imagine.

Anyway, she was right. The smell was the cattle coming down the road. We stood on the top of the hill and watched as a couple of dozen long horned Sanga cattle passed by, followed by a few straggling calves and a Hama man driving them. He glanced up the hill and saw me, which caused him to sprint up the path and issue a greeting.

Sanga Cattle. Not the Congo, but nearby Rwanda. From Wilson, RT, “Crossbreeding of Cattle in Africa” DOI: 10.15640/jaes.v7n1a3
“Hey, what’s new?” (Standard greeting in the area: “Habari gani?”)

“No news,” I replied. I asked our local employee to get the water bottle and cup, assuming he wanted a fresh drink. Which he did.

As he appreciatively downed the liquid, he asked me, “Is this Ngodigodi? The place where you white people work?”

“Yes, it is,” I replied, bemused that he would know that, since our presence was semi-secretive, in order to avoid drawing attention to our neighborhood, which would in turn potentially mess up the folks who lived around us.

That’s when he pulled out the bottle of shampoo and handed it to me. “Some guy up the road a ways told me to give this to you.”

In sum: First world problem and third world solution.

The thing is, this was not an unusual event. It was normal.

Well, it was a somewhat extreme and amusing, story-generating version of normal. Normal is more like I go to a guy’s store and say I want to exchange money, and he says he can’t but he knows someone who can, and it turns out that is also the guy I’m hoping to get a rebuilt fuel injector from, and he is the sibling of a person who is offering bags of ground cassava for pretty cheap, but they all live in different places but are visiting relatives, and somebody needs a ride across town. Three people, actually, with stops along the way. So, after three hours of driving around with people and stuff, three hours of meeting and greeting, counting out giant piles of near worthless local currency, goods and services being exchanged, a couple cups of tea and a chupa of beer or two, and at the end of the day, I end up completing an important bank transaction in the land without banks, my truck will get fixed, and we can eat for a month, all stuff I would have done in the US in less than 45 minutes, but here, it is a series of social events bound together with a ToDo list, and a full day’s activity.

Yesterday morning my wife stopped at her usual coffee shop to pick up the coffee she ordered in advance on line. The barista’s kid was sick so he was not there, and the shop was closed. But the person working at the adjoining business said, “yeah, he’s out, but I’ll tell him you get a free coffee tomorrow.” Then this morning, she stopped by and a third person who also did not work there said, “are you the person who gets the free crafted press? Here, saving it for you” and so on. A series of trust-based events to fix a supply chain problem, a supply chain problem that is an amateur version of the Big Giant Supply Chain Problem that every human being who lives anywhere that is not the First World experiences daily with all things, where it is simply the way it is, all the time.

A supply chain problem in the US could be called a First World problem, but really, it is something a little different. It is the thin but heretofore persistent veneer of the First World sloughing off in a spot or two, revealing the fundamental Third World nature of human society and economics, underneath it all. The great First World accomplishment is re-organizing the Third World reality so things run more smoothly and everything takes less time. The benefit is that a term like “supply chain problem” is a bemusing neologism rather than a daily descriptor for most Americans. The cost is the dehumanization of the system.

The Republicans broke one of our oldest, most stable, and most useful institutions.
Just hours after the coffee exchange, I happened to see in a newspaper report another neologism: Skimpflation. The New York Times muses: “The quality of many services has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic — a problem that the NPR show “Planet Money” has labeled “skimpflation.”” What the Gray Lady and its commentators do with this concept is to launch on a Biden-Leveling screed meant to keep the fight between the left and the right even-looking, which is a crime that paper commits every day. But what they hit on, accidentally, is the point I’m making here. Two points, really. 1) Third World life is just under the surface, and 2) If you get your expectations in order, this change we are having has some serious benefits; it isn’t all down side.

There is a third point. This is all Trump’s fault. And the Republicans. By ripping apart as many systems as they could, and by encouraging rather than fighting the Covid pandemic, they damaged or broke all the things that matter to most of the people, while leaving the rich intact. We are now more like Zaire/Congo than we ever were. (Like our postal system, on the verge of collapse. Many countries don’t even have a postal system. They just have this guy who happens to be walking down the street, or a muzungu with a working vehicle who happens to be going across town…) The Republican goal is to turn the US into a sea of Third World humanity with the supply chain ever broken, with a small wealthy and somewhat larger and less wealthy ex-patriot-esque community living behind walls in some serious priv. That is what Republicans always wanted, that is what they are finally getting.

The world where that story of shampoo happened unraveled, several times, in the intervening period between then and now. Hundreds of thousands have died violent deaths there, or worse, and there was even a systematic holocaust. A region about a third of the United States with a population of about a fifth of the United States has been living in economic strife and social upheaval because that top-heavy post colonial system eventually blows up. We will have that here as well, if the Third Worlding planned by Bannon, Trump, McConnell and the other Republicans is fully realized.

We could be rescued, of course, by a fascist superhero of some kind. Yes, this is Hitler’s playbook being applied. It is a very plausible scenario. Fear creates a movement, spiritual and physical terror, propaganda. Or, as they say in Mein Kampf, “Angst schafft Bewegung, spirituellen und physischen Terror, Propaganda.” Hitler’s program worked because Germany of the time was a broken society with a broken economy and a balkanized government. The White Supremacist program wouldn’t work well in an America that wasn’t beaten and damaged. Lucky for the Republicans, this handy dandy disease came along just in time to put us on the mat and hold us down long enough to create the beginnings of a Third World society, in which a movement could grow, spiritual and physical terror could be applied, and propaganda deployed. MAGA, insurrection, CRT/Replacement Theory.

Perhaps it is time to start stocking up on shampoo.


Note: The term “Third World” is considered inappropriate to refer to countries previously referred to as “Third World.” Untwist your shorts, I did not use that term to mean that in this essay. Thank you very much, re-read if necessary.


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The Great British Baking Show Translator

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Why do we like The Great British Baking Show? It lacks a chef who’s whole shtick is to be an asshole. The judges are fair, consistent, and open, even if the White Supremacists at The Sun are annoyed when a British-born Bangladesi from Bedfordshire wins. The judging process is meant to be entertaining, educational, and encouraging, if sometimes very baudy. The contestants reflect interesting diversity in both their own backgrounds and their diverse approaches to cooking. There is interesting and evolving interaction between the people on the show. We like the tent and the challenges it creates, especially in some seasons.

And of course, many of us watch the show to see the crashes.

Without further ado, a glossary. Add more to the comments if you’ve got em. Continue reading The Great British Baking Show Translator


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Ritualized Language Can Be Inaccurate and Annoying

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Rituals are things people do in a more or less consistent matter, often to the extent that the manner of doing is more important, or at least, more persistent, than any possible original reason for doing the thing. Ritualized behaviors are all around us, even in highly modern settings like medicine. As a possibly apocryphal example, I will refer to the story of the oven roast. Grandma had the best recipe for a roast beef, and passed it on to daughters, not by writing it down, but rather, by showing how to roast the beef, and the daughters wrote it down. That recipe was passed on, in written form, to grand daughters, and one day one of the grand daughters roasted the beef for the whole extended family for Sunday dinner. One of the younger folk marveled at the great roast beef, and someone else noted that it was grandma’s recipe.

“But what makes it so good, better than when I cook it,” an in-law said.

“I’m not sure. Maybe it is cutting the end of the roast off before putting it in the oven?” said the granddaughter who had done the roasting that Sunday.

“Yeah, grandma,” said the other granddaughter, causing grandma to sort of wake up and pay attention for a moment. “Why does cutting the end of the beef off before roasting it make it taste so good?”
Continue reading Ritualized Language Can Be Inaccurate and Annoying


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Anthropology and Racism with Greg Laden, by Brycearonee

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The Promethian Secular Frontier presents this excellent interview, which I enjoyed greatly, with, wait for it …. me!

Promethean Secular Frontier (PSF) is an educational/secular humanist page meant to provide a community for discussion on various topics ranging from the natural sciences (astronomy, physics, geology, biology/evolution, etc), to social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, etc), to philosophy (religion/theology, epistemological, rationalism, morality, etc). Our goal at PSF is to bring concepts that are different for laymen audiences and make them understandable and easily digestible to people seeking knowledge. PSF also wants to create a community that promotes inquiry, skepticism, critical thinking and secular humanism.

Small correction: I was a faculty instructor at Harvard, but actual professor (later) at University of Minnesota.


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What is Freedom?

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Once upon a time in the Congo, there was a democratically elected President; Some* called him the “Big Man.” The Big Man was elected every seven years by a majority of 97.8%. The people loved him because before he became President, war was everywhere, and just before that, the colonial overlords and punishers were everywhere. You couldn’t get a break. Then after a brief interlude of a different duly elected president who died in an unfortunate execution, Big Man saw to it that there would be no more wars.

Well, not exactly. He had wars, and the people of the Congo were given the opportunity to get jobs fighting in the wars, but they were all in adjoining countries, and they were all paid for by the United States Congress. So no war without taxes, and that was good.
Continue reading What is Freedom?


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History vs Now

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At a low but consistent frequency, I see a remark on Twitter or Facebook like: “So, where were all yahoos objecting to the Polio vaccine??!!11!!?? That is a disease we wiped out with a vaccine, that could not have happened if antivax existed then!”

This would be a reasonable lament were it true. I recently read, in Chernov’s Washington: A Life, that George Washington was anti-vax, before he changed his mind based on evidence made clear to him, and then became pro-vax. That was in relation to smallpox, and the “vaccine” was actually “variolation,” which is to modern vaccines what a camel is to a modern RV. Same idea, different technology. Continue reading History vs Now


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Italian Ate

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The Italians are among the most amazing people anywhere in the world. Ask any Italian. But make sure the person you ask is not a Sicilian, or they will kill you.

OK, enough of the Italian jokes. Point it, where I grew up, there was a large and vibrant Italian community. Loud, even. When our state elected the first Italian ever elected to high office as governor, the Italian community rejoiced, and so did everyone else because he was a great governor (a trait that does not necessarily run in family lines, I quickly add). Continue reading Italian Ate


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Music and expertise among hunter gatherers: Distant Echos with Yo Yo Ma

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Distant Echoes is a very special documentary. I remember well when first came out. I briefly met Yo You Ma at the time, because he came to my Anthropology department for the first showing. The documentary was shown around for a brief time, then disappeared from the world (except for those of us who had pilfered copies to show in our classes). I just discovered it is now available, so I’m telling you about it.

I want to make this point, which is touched on here. Hunter gatherers, such as the Ju/’howansi in this film, typically have experts among their society, on various things. Medical/magico, various crafts (I knew an Efe knot tier everyone revered), making various tools or pottery, and music. As far as I know all hunter gatherer societies do a fair amount of music, and typically everyone participates. Music (singing and some instruments, always dancing) is practiced by everyone, but variation in talent exists, and it is (obviously) known of.

You hear Irv DeVore mentioned in the documentary. He was my advisor, and I was his last PhD student.

Yes, that is Richard Lee, and he and DeVore are the editors of the famous “Man the Hunter” volume.

By the way, you can’t figure out what the heck hunter gatherers are doing by watching. Or, often, asking. You have to immerse, learn, and do. That fact is not unique to foragers, it is true of all things that are hard to do universally. But for some reason people are surprised to find that this is true with foragers, and in this manner, a lot of bad anthropology has been done.

Enjoy:


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Framing Is Greater Than Fishing

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Framing is a concept important in understanding how language works. It originated in anthropology, developed in sociology, re-employed in anthropology and linguistics, and is now a major part of communication science. It is the new thing. Framing is a verb that has come to mean correctly, or effectively, communicating a message in a way that is convincing. It isn’t, really. Framing is part of normal day to day linguistic communication, and I assure you, it is possible to “frame” something in an utterly disastrous way. So, “I did framing today” does not guarantee you did not screw up your message. “I was a good framer today” means you believe you didn’t screw it up, and maybe did a great job!

Here, I want to look at one example of communication to critique it from the perspective of framing, to give an idea of what framing is all about.

Have a look at this bumper sticker:

A bumper sticker from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Framing is always part of linguistic communication. Linguistic communication is a symbolic process, by which meaning is generated in a recipient, meaning that originated from another linguistic being, by reference to a commonly understood system of symbols and symbolic relationships. If I say the word “fish” you might think of some aquatic vertebrate animal easily available to your mind, maybe a trout. That is not because the word “fish” sounds, looks, or feels inherently fishish, but because we are communicating in a language in which “fish” is a shared symbol.

Which of the following words is not a word for “fish”?

se i?a
seekor ikan
hove
eng Geess

You would not know that the first three mean “a fish” while the fourth one means “a goat” unless you also know Samoan, Indonesian, Shona, and Luxembourgian. The link between the thing and the word is arbitrary. That is what makes the word a symbol for a fish, instead of, say, an icon for a fish (which would look at least somewhat like a fish, and might be hard to say out loud using voice).

But what if I meant the verb “fish” instead of the noun? Go get a fishing pole, a worm, and the other gear, and try to catch a fish. You would probably know the difference between the noun and the verb because of other parts of the sentence. Like I might say, “Hey you, go fish” (verb) as opposed to “Hey you, look at that fish” (noun).

The difference here is typically thought of as grammatical. The actual symbol being used is not really “fish” but rather the collection of words arranged in such a way to be identified as a noun, or a verb, or some other thing. This can be less obvious in English which tends to disassociate the grammatical elements compared to some other languages. (This is probably a feature of both Romance and Germanic languages generally). Thinking of words as distinct sets of letters set off by surrounding white space is a hindrance for English speakers when it comes to understanding the symbolic nature of language.

But what about this difference: I say to you “go, fish!” as you stand on the dock next to a boat loaded up with angling gear. This might compel you to get in the boat and start hunting for fish. But if instead of standing on the dock, we are inside sitting around a table and we have a bunch of playing cards in play, and I say “go fish!” we are probably playing the card game by that name, and your next move is to look for a card in the deck.

The difference between being on the dock and looking in the deck is a matter of framing. The symbolic utterance is “go fish” but it has multiple possible meanings. But there is something else involved in this act of symbolizing, that allows you to be more likely to correctly interpret my words. In this case, it is the physical context (out by the lake vs inside at the table) and the presence of certain artifacts (the paraphernalia of angling vs a deck of cards). That additional information keys the frame to either being about an outdoor activity involving fish or an indoor activity involving a deck of cards.

In the symbolic structure represented in the NCSE bumper sticker, what is the meaning of the three elements “EVIDENCE”, “>”, and “Misinformation”?

I believe you are supposed to take the “>” as a greater than sign, so EVIDENCE is greater than Misinformation. The details of the typeface (bold vs. not bold) reinforces this. The additional symbol, the Darwin’s Phylogeny drawing in the earthy sphere tells us this bumper sticker is about science and evolution, and is anti-misinformation, but never mind that for now. Just given the two words and the greater-than sign tell us all we need to know.

Or does it? Stick with the assumption that the symbols are symbols, ie., arbitrary in meaning. If so, why is “>” greater than? If this bumper sticker is meant to convince mathematicians that evidence is greater than misinformation, then yes, that makes sense, the meaning is clear, but this is also a waste of good paper and glue, because mathematicians, or sciency people who have some affinity to math, already know that. But what if the person interpreting this symbolic entity happens to be primarily a computer expert who programs in the scripting language bash? That might sound like a small, obscure, group, but it is not. Raise your hand if you know enough bash to know what two words with a “>” between them means! In bash, greater than is symbolized by “-gt” and the “>” symbol means something totally different. Like this, for example:

cat EVIDENCE

means spew the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to what is called “standard output,” which means onto the screen, normally. However,

cat EVIDENCE>Misinformation

means redirect from standard output, and copy the contents of a file named “EVIDENCE” to the end of the file called “Misinformation” and if that file does not exist, create “Misinformation” and fill it with the contents of “EVIDENCE”.

From the bash point of view, evidence is the basis for misinformation. This bumper sticker is, maybe, saying that evidence is bullpucky, or creates bullpucky, or the basis for bullpucky. This would be an example of the framing stepping big time on the message.

Here, the framing is pre-done, or primed, in advance. A person who is likely to see a “>” as a mathematical symbol understands the bumper sticker as meant. A person who spends all day with bash scripts may well get the same meaning, but their brain may alternatively go right to “>” as the redirect symbol, and figure that evidence becomes misinformation, or that misinformation is made out of evidence. That would be a bumper sticker fail.

On top of this, consider that even though the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, icons also exist as part of our linguistic communication. So, that green thing that looks like an arrow might be showing us that EVIDENCE becomes, or goes to, Misinformation. That is still a matter of framing, but in this case, more the absence of a key to set the frame up properly. The recipient of the message is simply trying to interpret what starts out as nonsense (as do all symbols until our brains figure them out), by giving a meaning of implied directionality to the thing that looks like an arrow, and coming up with a reasonably comfortable interpretation of the message. Evidence leads to misinformation.

I love the NCSE. I’m a big supporter. They have helped me greatly in the past. This bumper sticker, though … might be lesser than other options.


*Framing was originally formulated in the work of Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, though not everyone acknowledges (or knows) that. This was picked up and greatly expanded by Erving Goffman, and his work was sufficiently significant to attribute the origin of framing to him, though he was building on Bateson. Framing then spread as an idea across anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy, and was noticed by linguist George Lakoff and evile Republican strategist Frank Luntz, and applied to communication strategy. Biographies of the framing concept will vary, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.


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Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”

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In Minnesota we have an epic “rural-urban” divide. Most epic about it is the degree to which it is oversimplified. Our “rural” area is incredibly diverse. A big chunk of it consists of a gazillion acres of corn, and among the corn, the farmsteads and small villages that serve the corn. A somewhat larger area consists of a the very large wet spot left behind by the receding glaciers, also known as the “lakes region” but that is more marsh than lake, and within which we find a gazillion “cabins” ranging in size and fanciness from actual cabin to small castle. I would include in this zone the large state and national parks and preserves and other lands, and good portions of Native American lands. A somewhat smaller area is the mining zone which some call “the range” (but there are many “ranges” and even rangers are usually not in agreement on the exact geography, and by the way, this is not a mountain range … no mountains at all.) Continue reading Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”


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Graphic Fearless Primatology (book)

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Check out Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks*, a graphic style book** about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. These were, as you probably know, the three women that dispersed around the world to study major great ape species (chimps, gorillas, orangs, respectively) in order to better understand human evolution.

Example page:

These are three reasonably good biographies (and a fourth, of Louis Leakey, linked to all three life stories), presented in an entertaining (and graphic, as in drawing) fashion. Adults will enjoy it, suitable for children.


**I struggled with what to call it. It is “graphic novel” format but it is not a novel, It is non fiction. So, is it “graphic non fiction”? The material from the publisher calls it “nonfiction graphic novel” which is clearly not a phrase I want to use unironically. Suggestions welcome.


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