Who needs truth when you have press releases?

19 Mar

On TC yesterday: Project Mosul Aims to Resurrect the Artifacts Destroyed by ISIS.

The video circulated around the 26th of February, 2015 shows the horrific destruction of the Mosul Museum by ISIS Fighters. This is not the first time this museum has suffered during times of conflict, but the destruction is nearly absolute, and this time we can respond through the application of digital technologies to cultural heritage.We assume that much of the museum’s contents were looted, and anything small enough to be easily removed will be appearing soon on the antiquities market. Anything too large to remove for sale, appears to have met a violent end at the hand of ISIS extremists.

Two weeks ago on OTM: the damaged artifacts were mostly replicas.

experts took a closer look and found that, actually, many (though not all) of the Mosul Museum artifacts were plaster fakes, the originals having been carted away in anticipation of such vandalism. Mostafa Heddaya is a senior writer for ArtInfo.com.

This feels like a new level in organizations piggybacking their goals and publicity on the back of disasters.


Exoticising the other: the technology edition

19 Feb

The New York Times recently published an article about Japan’s stubborn insistence on using fax machines, titled “In High-Tech Japan, the Fax Machines roll on.” While exploring an interesting phenomenon that certainly presents a rich topic of study, this article caught my attention with its layer of cheap-shot exoticising of the Japanese “other” overlayed on the otherwise interesting article. The revealing quote is below:

Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The fax addiction helps explain why Japan, which once revolutionized consumer electronics with its hand-held calculators, Walkmans and, yes, fax machines, has become a latecomer in the digital age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Korea and China.

“Japan has this Galápagos effect of holding on to some things they’re comfortable with,” said Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology historian who is writing a book on the machine’s rise and fall. “Elsewhere, the fax has gone the way of the dodo.”

In Japan, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or internationally minded manufacturers, the fax remains an essential tool for doing business.

It takes for granted the assumption that the reluctance to give up faxes is caused by “quiet determination to stick to its tried-and-true ways,” exploiting a vague stereotype about Japan that some readers might hold. This despite the fact that the article actually briefly hints at more fulfilling explanations of the fax trend, such as a cultural practices around paperwork in government bureaucracy:

Experts say government offices prefer faxes because they generate paperwork onto which bureaucrats can affix their stamps of approval, called hanko.

or the latin alphabet-centric design of personal computers:

“Handwritten messages have long been a necessity in Japan, where the written language is so complex, with two sets of symbols and 2,000 characters borrowed from Chinese, that keyboards remained impractical until the advent of word processors in the 1980s. Faxes continue to appeal to older Japanese, who often feel uncomfortable with keyboards, experts say.”

<Sidenote: who are these “experts say” and why not honor us with at least a fleeting attribution? I’m pretty sure this used to be a journalistic no-no back when I learned about it.>

I don’t know much about fax usage in Japan or what explains it, but I do know that simplified cultural stereotypes are unlikely to illuminate it. This framing also prevents us from appreciating invention that doesn’t look like what we are used to. This gem of an idea is buried at the very end of the article:

NTT, the giant domestic telephone company that originally helped develop affordable fax machines, has tried to bridge that gap. It is offering services that allow older Japanese to use their fax machines to send messages to their children’s and grandchildren’s smartphones, where they appear as attachments to e-mails.

And anyways, what’s so wrong with faxes?

I leave you with an imaginary paragraph inspired by this article:

United States’ reluctance to give up its personal checks offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The personal check addiction helps explain why the US, which once revolutionized consumer internet with its search engines, social networks, mp3 players and smartphones, has become a latecomer in the digital payments age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Africa, or Kenya.

“The Americans have this Galápagos effect of holding on to some things they’re comfortable with,” said Blahblah Blahdyblah, a technology historian who is writing a book on the checks’s rise and fall. “Elsewhere, the personal check has gone the way of the dodo.”

In most of the US, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or younger internet users, the personal check remains an essential tool for doing business or paying bills.



Amazon got Michael Jackson writing some radical ethnography

26 Jul

If only the King of Pop also dabbled in anthropology the way Michael Jackson, a post-modern anthropologist with an interest in existential theories of being, does it, the world would indeed be a trippy place.

(screenshot of amazon.com author page for Michael Jackson on July 26th, 2011)

PS: Interestingly, Amazon got the right author page for Michael Jackson the famous beer and whisky writer. Coincidence?

Google News tries to gamify news-reading

17 Jul

Game mechanics applied to user experience design and marketing (also referred to by some as “Gamification”) has been a popular topic in Silicon Valley and beyond in the past few years, and now even Google is taking a page out of this book. The U.S. edition of Google News is awarding various levels of badges to readers active in specific news topics through a feature called Google News Badges.

According to Gamification.com, this idea is “Ugh. Bad.” While I’m not a gamification expert, and don’t aspire to be one, I have to disagree. As a consumer, this is the first time I have encountered a game rewards system in a non-game setting that I immediately found exciting and useful. Of course I want to know how my news-reading measures up to my friends and the wider world! And I have a feeling my competitive side will indeed be fueled to read more in topics I supposedly care about (even though cheating here would be a bit too easy).

Perhaps this is because I’m a nerd, but I have a feeling Google News Badges will be fun for other nerds everywhere.

South Sudan independence referendum ballot

8 Jan

from sosanews.com

Public Anthropology

4 Nov

Daniel Lende writes a beautiful “manifesto” for public anthropology.


2 Nov

Don’t Try This Abroad, a thoughtful reaction to Nick Kristof’s The D.I.Y Foreign-Aid-Revolution article. Much nicer than what I would have written.

A poem

12 Oct

A post on Scientific American mentioned a few lines from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats so I took the opportunity to read the whole poem. Even though it’s written in the aftermath of World War I, it contains some acutely relevant food for thought.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Copied from Poem of the Week.

Art this weekend

11 Oct

We bravely hit up three different art festivals this weekend. What follows are crappy phone pics and notes about what caught my attention.


Captivating creepy photos of skeletons in various spaces by Marc Da Cunha Lopes. More on his website.

Adorable monsters painted on wood and other reappropriated material by Mateo Dineen. More on his website.

ABC – art berlin contemporary.

A magical video projection called “Cruising” by Matthew Weinstein.

Surreal moving images titled “Cadavres Exquis Vivants” by BitteBitteJaJa.

Short films I liked at ABC were “EXIT, 2008” by Sharon Lockhart, and “Territorial Pissing” by NUG.

art forum
Art Forum was packed with amazing art and I only saw half of it. Here are by-no-means-exhaustive snippets of what I managed to note.

Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs: “The Great Unreal” – full of haunting, only very slightly surreal images. For actual good images, see this link.

Laurenz Berges – “haunting” and “lonely” are cliche keywords, but that is what comes to mind. More images here.

Axel Huette – I love this guy’s landscapes. artnet link.

Martin Liebscher – what you can’t see is that this is actually an insanely prolific composite/collage of the same guy filling the entire space. Here’s a link to a better image of this photograph on Liebscher’s website.

Maix Mayer – this picture doesn’t do the photo much justice. Here’s a link to more about Mayer.

And to top it all off, the exhibition grounds for art forum and ABC (Messe Berlin) were also beautiful.

What’s wrong with verbena oil? Health scares and SEO.

11 Oct

Today, I kept seeing “verbena oil” mentioned on various lists of ingredients banned or restricted in cosmetics due to their toxicity. Since I remembered seeing the verbena fragrance in my household products and I like lemon verbena tea, it caught my attention. Apparently, it’s prohibited from use as a fragrance ingredient or as an ingredient in cosmetics in the European Union and unsafe for use in fragrances according to the International Fragrance Association Codes & Standards. Wikipedia only mentions this in passing in the Lemon Verbena entry.

My curiosity (and hypochondria) still peaked, I decided to find out more. What does this restriction mean for my tea drinking or for my detergent? I decided to attempt to answer these question doing what anyone in my generation would – googling “verbena oil”. Summary: I gave up before I could find an explanation of the scares and almost bought some essential oils in the process. Here’s an account of the failure.

The first result, something on ezinearticles.com, tells us that lemon verbena helps to ease exhaustion, relieve anxiety, and boost concentration, and also helps with insomnia. It does recommend that you “do your research” when using it during pregnancy, but lists various benefits such as increasing stamina. (Good thing I’m not pregnant, because “doing your research” proved quite difficult). It also mentions that there might be skin sensitivity in some people.

The second result, a website on a South African domain name selling essential oils, admits that “There is not much safety data regarding lemon verbena oil, but since it has a high citral level it may cause sensitization and is phototoxic.” It also lists various therapeutic properties such as “antiseptic, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, digestive, emollient, febrifuge, hepatic, insecticide, sedative, stomachic and tonic.”

One of the top results is the “Contraindications” section of a website selling aromatherapy products. It’s listed as a “sensitizing oil” and an ingredient that might cause “severe sun damage”.

The rest of the top 10 results cover various topics such as why and how to use it in aromatherapy, or what food to drizzle it on (vegetables and fish).

Answers.com has a brief blurb on its benefits such as “it is very good for clearing acne and spots also if massaged into the stomach during pregnancy it reduces stretch marks as it improves the elasticity of the skin”.

Nahziryah Monastic Community is simply selling it, noting its aromatherapy uses are “calming, improves concentration, protection, purification”.

wiseGEEK lists a variety of healing properties of lemon verbena oil ranging from its soothing effect on the digestive system to healing the liver.

florapathics is selling it as “calming” and “balancing” but does list the following potential safety issues: “Possible sensitization, phototoxicity due to high citral levels. Otherwise nontoxic.”

By the way, “sensitization” is “an increased effect of drug following repeated doses (the opposite of drug tolerance).” (wikipedia). Phototoxicity means (in humans) that the chemical in question becomes toxic when exposed to sunlight (wikipedia). Notice that neither of these claims tell us anything about the actual nature of verbena’s toxicity.

How does this square with claims like “known human immune system toxicant” listed on the Environmental Working Group website? The reference for this claim is “EU Banned and Restricted Fragrances” cited as SCCPNFP (Scientific Committee On Cosmetic Products And Non-Food Products). 1999. Opinion Concerning Fragrance Allergy In Consumers. . SCCNFP/0017/98 Final, December 1999; and SCCPNFP (Scientific Committee On Cosmetic Products And Non-Food Products). 2000. An Initial List Of Perfumery Materials Which Must Not Form Part Of Fragrances Compounds Used In Cosmetic Products. SCCNFP/0320/00, final May 2000. I failed to find the original text.

This is where my research runs out of steam. There is a link to scientific publications potentially addressing the verbena issue. Surveying this literature is far beyond my ability. I was hoping someone already has. And I was hoping that someone would rank decently in the Google search algorithm.

Conclusions? The information available to me thus far can only lead to some sort of a stupid conclusion like “cook tea in absolute darkness”. The larger conclusion is that responsible health information regarding substances all around us is under-researched, under-published, under-explained and under-available.