The Design Squiggle as a Way of Thinking about Anthropological Research

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

It seems to be well known among designers, but I only recently learned about the “Design Squiggle” a few days ago.

The Squiggle is a visual tool that helps you keep track of where you are in the design process. The big mess on the left is where most projects start: uncertainty with a bit of chaos. The smooth line on the right is where you eventually want to get to: clarity and focus.

Comparisons between cultural anthropology and design are not new. And yet it does not seem very widespread for anthropologists, and perhaps most other social scientists, to engage much with what designers do and think about to inform how they approach cultural research. Our models tend to be literary, philosophical, or scientific.

To me, this squiggle is a very good representation of what the research process in anthropology looks like. You are dropped in the middle of something interesting but difficult to process. Too much information. You try to pay attention to everything, make sense of the littlest occurrence, and tire yourself out in the process. As time goes on, you find a direction to go, but then find your eye pulled towards something new. Eventually, you learn how to separate figures from ground, and things start to make sense.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

This is a feeling that any teacher of anthropology has tried to convey to a student. But it’s not something that’s easy to grasp when you’re in the middle of first fieldwork, and this can be a source of more than a little anxiety. Maybe, I think, this Squiggle does better in conveying the feeling more than saying “This is what it’s like for everyone.”

The one thing I would add that would make the Squiggle feel truer to anthropological life is for squiggles to link to further squiggles in a nearly endless chain. The dissertation proposal is its own squiggle. Fieldwork is a bundle of squiggles. Writing is a squiggle for each paragraph, as is each chapter, each presentation, each article… Squiggles all the way down and at every step forward. I think the reason that all of the grad students and faculty members that I’ve come to know have tenacity as one of their defining traits is that tenacity is what it takes to work through endless fractal patterns of squiggles. Anthropologists should probably be called squiggleographers.

A fractal pattern of squiggles. One more thing: Since first encountering the work of Minakata Kumagusu during my fieldwork in Japan, I’ve been taken by a sketch of his that is known as the “Minakata Mandala.”

From http://acidrainproduction.com/slime-intelligence/

As I understand it, this is something that Evans-Pritchard would have called a diagram of witchcraft if he’d found it among the Azande. There are physical laws that can predict that an event will take place. But there is another order, beyond those laws, that explains why this event took place here, now, to these people. This is what Minakata’s sketch tries to render visual. He may have been a squiggleographer avant la lettre.

Next-level Deepfake Avatars for Zoom

My attempts with Facerig have been fun, but I’ve learned of a tool that lets you use the technology behind deepfake videos to turn faces of famous people into your avatar on Zoom or Skype.

Programmer Ali Aliev used the open-source code from the “First Order Motion Model for Image Animation,” published on the arxiv preprint server earlier this year, to build Avatarify. First Order Motion, developed by researchers at the University of Trento in Italy as well as Snap, Inc., drives a photo of a person using a video of another person—such as footage of an actor—without any prior training on the target image.


(Source)

The software can be found here on Github. I can’t use it because the software currently requires a CUDA-compatible NVIDIA GPU, which I don’t have, but maybe it’ll be made to work on low-power laptop integrated graphics chips as well.

University is anything but universal: How to apply to graduate school in three different countries

(For the past year or two, I’ve been contemplating writing a “missing manual” for university that explains the tacit skills and knowledge for getting by in university that first-generation students or foreign students may not have. This piece is looks at one potential topic.)

Though it will depend on the country, university, and discipline, only a tiny percentage of the people who finish an undergraduate degree will go on to study for a Master’s degree or a doctorate. A good number of these students will already have a clear sense of how to select and apply to a graduate program, as they may have had when they were applying to universities and colleges for their Bachelor’s degrees. But a significant number will have only a vague sense of about the application process, informed mostly by the materials on a university’s website and not by friends or relatives who have gone through the process before.

I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the graduate school admissions process a number of times. As a student, I applied to grad schools in the US and Canada. As a staff member, I have evaluated applicants in Japan and New Zealand. On the surface, they all seem quite similar in process, and in some ways they are. But there are a number of significant differences between contexts that students and staff may be unaware of. Graduate school is often a time for students to decide to pursue studies in another country, so being unaware of these differences may put them at a disadvantage.

So here are some of the main differences that I’ve noticed between New Zealand, Japan, and North America. (My experiences with US and Canadian applications were similar, so I’m treating them together.) I’ll focus on a few areas where the differences are the biggest. Everything I write comes from my experiences in anthropology and STS. I think that much of it will apply to other humanities and social sciences, and a little of it to STEM disciplines.

Entrance Exams

The phrase “entrance exam” seems to conjure images of Asia for many people, and indeed an entrance exam was one of the key parts of the application process in Japan.

In Japan, entry to graduate school generally requires one or more scheduled written exams collectively and colloquially known as the “inshi.” In the case of my former employer, the exams included an academic English language test that was required of all applicants to the department and a subject exam specific to the program. There was also an interview/oral exam.

In North America, there are practically no entrance exams in the Japanese sense, a score on the Graduate Record Exam or GRE is needed as part of applications to manyu Ph.D. programs. This is more often the case in the US than Canada, though even in the US, some programs are dropping the requirement. There are also some programs that require an interview.

In New Zealand, there may at times be an informal interview as part of the application process, there are no timed written exams required.

The Research Proposal

In Japan, North America, and New Zealand, applications to graduate programs generally require a research statement that outlines the potential project that the applicant will undertake if admitted.

In Japan and North America, the statement is usually used to gauge the writing and research potential of a student. Once admitted, students usually have some flexibility to alter their intended research. In my case, the research statements for which I was accepted to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the US and Canada bore little resemblance to the research I eventually ended up doing to graduate. In Japan, there was similarly some flexibility, though students usually did not alter their research projects a great deal once accepted.

A lot of this flexibility has to do with the large amount of coursework that is generally required of graduate students in Japan and North America after they are admitted. In the US, Canada, and Japan, it is common for students to do one to two years of seminars in which they read widely within their field. In many programs in the US and Canada, this coursework prepares students for “field exams” or “comprehensive exams” which test students’ preparedness to move on to independent research. My Ph.D. program in Canada did not have comprehensive exams but the Ph.D. research proposal and oral defence served a similar purpose. (Other programs in the same university did have comprehensive exams.)

In New Zealand, the research statement takes on greater importance. The statement is taken more strongly as a commitment by the student to pursue a specific project if admitted, and there is less flexibility to change direction, especially at the Ph.D. level. Correspondingly, graduate students are not usually required to take courses at the Master’s or Ph.D. level and there are no comprehensive exams. The programs are also therefore much shorter. Whereas some Ph.D. programs in the US may take 7 or more years to complete (during which the successful student will also often receive a Master’s degree) a Ph.D in New Zealand is officially 3 years in length. The student is expected to focus on their doctoral research upon admission. At the university where I currently teach, students will not ordinarily do any courses after completing an Honour’s degree. There are, however, “taught Master’s” degrees in which students spend the majority of their time doing course work. These correspond to the “Master’s by coursework” degrees (versus “Master’s by research”) that can be found in some departments in North America.

Application Fees

In Japan and North America, applicants typically have to pay a fee, which may be more than a hundred dollars, to even submit an application to a graduate program. In New Zealand, no fee needs to be paid. Some universities may offer fee waivers for financially disadvantaged students, but in my case, I paid a few hundred dollars submitting my applications to a number of universities.

Other Aspects

Apart from the importance of the research statement and the requirement for (or lack of) entrance exams and application fees, the other aspects of graduate applications in the three regions are roughly the same. All require the submission of grade transcripts for previous degrees. All require some number of academic reference letters (though this can vary from 1 to 3 letters.) If your first language is not English or Japanese, then you may also have to supply proof of language proficiency with a TOEFL, IELTS, or JLPT score.

Graduate School in New Zealand

What this all points to is that for people who are familiar with the North American style of university education, the New Zealand version of graduate school looks a little peculiar, in some ways even more so than Japan. And so applying to a program here will require an adjustment of perspective.

From my standpoint, doing a Ph.D. at a New Zealand university requires somewhat more preparation and maturity of students than a North American university does. Applicants here will generally need to have a stronger grounding in their discipline and a fairly well developed sense of their research project in order to be considered qualified.

The flip-side of this is the application process in New Zealand is more open. I mean this in the sense that, if you are interested in applying to a program, the staff will be quite open to discussing your potential project and even in some cases helping you develop it prior to your actual application. If you can find an interesting staff member who is also interested in your work, they may become a strong advocate for your acceptance.

Whether or not to go to graduate school in New Zealand, or in any other country for that matter, is not something with a straightforward answer. But for those who do decide to go and to do it in another country, it will pay to know that university is not universal.

Using a Virtual Avatar in Zoom

If we’re all going to be locked down and locked into Zoom, then we might as well have a little fun with it.

Inspired by a posting in a Facebook group for Japanese academics to discuss COVID about using a vtuber (“virtual youtuber”) for Zoom lectures, I decided to investigate how I could use a virtual avatar in place of my plain old mug in a Zoom lecture. It turned out to be incredibly simple and relatively cheap.

The post on Facebook took me to this page (in Japanese) which explains some of the options, both for smartphones and computers. I ended up with Facerig, downloadable on Steam (a great excuse to install Steam on a work computer). It cost me $17.99 NZD.

Facerig uses the webcam on your computer to track your facial motions and maps them onto a computer generated character. The character will move its head, blink, and move its mouth in roughly the same way as your own face.

Facerig can be configured in “Broadcast” mode, which adds a virtual webcam device to your computer. This webcam can be selected in software like Zoom, which lets you transmit your virtual avatar instead of your face, along with your voice (which can be altered, though I haven’t tried this yet.)

Since I teach a course on the anthropology of science and technology, I’m thinking of using this software for one (or all) of my Zoom lectures once courses restart at the end of this month. Over the years I’ve played with the idea of dressing in different outfits for lectures to see how the students interact differently with me. This setup will let me test how they react to a talking dog.

Coronavirus spells the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

For a visceral indication of how much the world has changed in the past year, consider this: It has been less than one year since Avengers: Endgame hit theatres. The film, which would eventually end up earning $2.798 billion globally, came out in April 2019. Don’t the Avengers feel like they belong to the past? Don’t they feel completely irrelevant to the present? Who cares about the Marvel Cinematic Universe anymore?

This is an incredibly sudden and peculiar development. Understandably, global lock-down and social distancing measures play a major role. Millions of people need to be able to freely move around to make Marvel profitable. The first film of “Phase 4,” Black Widow, was originally set for release in May 2020, but is now postponed and without a release date because of COVID.

Also notable is the near complete absence of the MCU from social media advertising, at least from my vantage. Ads for the Disney+ streaming service have been ubiquitous on my Twitter feed, but they nearly all focus on Star Wars-related properties or the questionably titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I don’t remember seeing a single ad for the roster of MCU films and series that supposedly live on Disney+.

Given the themes of the last two Avengers movies, it feels like there should be at least a few dark memes about Thanos and the “Snap.” Infinity War and Endgame were about an eco-fascist galactic super-villain’s pursuit of the power to exterminate half the universe’s population to ensure the security of the remainder. It is not a spoiler to say that Thanos was stopped by the Avengers, a team of super-heroes that now numbers somewhere in the high double-digits. Again, from where I stand, no such memes have gone viral, if they exist at all. Perhaps the idea of a cold, survival-driven organism erasing half of all humanity hits too close to home right now.

In a March 28 New York Times piece, the Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith points out that Shakespeare’s work barely makes reference to the plagues that defined his England. She suggests that the plague killed without regard to social, gender, and personal differences; in contrast, or perhaps in response, Shakespeare emphasizes individuality and the differences among people: his tragedies “underscore the significance and distinctiveness of the individual even as they move him inexorably toward his end. [Tragedy] does not defy death; it re-endows it with meaning and specificity.”

The MCU may not be Shakespeare for our times, but it could mark the vacuum into which one might appear. The appetite for apocalyptic stories is unlikely to fade, but ones in which superhuman saviours solve them will become unpalatable. Tony Stark’s talent for instant tech fixes are beyond complete fantasy next to the global respirator shortage and 12-18 month timeline for a vaccine. No amount of scrappy synergy between the Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy can ensure widespread compliance with lock-down protocols. If Captain America exists, he is drunk at the wheel and would have little to say about social distancing even if he weren’t. He’s always been most effective in close-quarters combat. If the Marvel superheroes once embodied hope for the masses, their powers now more than ever look like tools for ensuring the survival of the elite.

The MCU political philosophy has always been one of trickle down justice played out as public spectacle. The Marvel superheroes cannot be effective without a mass audience, both in-world and out. If nobody can go out to see the spectacle, then there can be no justice. Try to imagine Thor on e-mail, let alone Zoom. He becomes a joke. (“Send a raven!”)

The difference between Shakespeare’s plague and COVID-19 is that COVID-19 does not kill without regard for social, gender, and personal differences. By any measure, COVID has already had a staggering human cost. But for now, it remains common knowledge that COVID kills the elderly and infirm at a much higher rate than other groups. And as long as lock-downs and “social distancing” remain the preferred public health weapons against it, COVID will have a disproportionate effect on the poor while the more affluent can afford to get on Netflix and wait out the storm at home. (Read this horrifying Twitter thread about the worsening situation at the prison on New York’s Rikers Island.)

As a health risk, COVID seems to strike hardest within a narrow range. However, (if we define “universal” as the past global audience of Marvel films) COVID is a nearly universal social and psychological contagion. It has entrapped or threatens to entrap a significant proportion of the world’s population at home. The counter-move to this entrapment is the further intensification of digital social connections among these homes. Not only are we seeing homes turned into workspaces, but these homes are then put on display as both a sign of solidarity and of ongoing productivity. Tertiary industries have suddenly become cottage industries.

Post-industrial productivity, biological health, post-liberal morality, digitally-mediated social relations, and myriad forms of “home” spaces are imploding into a form, template, or diagram for “normal” social relations that is likely to persist in partial form post-plague. It is this diagram and not “bare life” in relation to which people will be coerced and incited to mold themselves as subjects.

Tony Stark’s wealth and genius are military-industrial rather than Silicon Valley-startup. Thor is immortal. Captain America is virtuous but in the style of the “Greatest Generation.” The Incredible Hulk is not as persuasive on Skype. This is why so many of these heroes feel a bit archaic already, and it’s why people will be looking elsewhere for escape.

If any of the Marvel Cinematic superheroes continues to flourish, I think it will be Spider-Man. Movie executives seem totally unwilling to leave Spider-Man alone. But in addition, I think he fits the new diagram. Yes, he has super-strength etc., but he is a normal geek kid with fairly normal kid aspirations and interests. In his most recent incarnations, Spider-man would be completely comfortable on Youtube or TikTok, and it’s likely that he’s headed towards a decent college and an unpaid internship. He also has a stable and happy home and is local. He is of New York. The others could be from anywhere—it wouldn’t affect their stories at all.

With the exception of Spider-man all of the Marvel superheroes are homeless. And if you’re homeless, where are you going to self-isolate?

Zoom is difficult to distinguish from spyware

Michael Tsai’s blog collects some tweets and posts highlighting major privacy issues with Zoom.

ZOOM monitors the activity on your computer and collects data on the programs running and captures which window you have focus on.

If you manage the calls, you can monitor what programs users on the call are running as well.

The host of a Zoom call has the capacity to monitor the activities of attendees while screen-sharing.

What the company and its privacy policy don’t make clear is that the iOS version of the Zoom app is sending some analytics data to Facebook, even if Zoom users don’t have a Facebook account, according to a Motherboard analysis of the app.

With the COVID-driven worldwide push at many universities to move to Zoom-based online classes, we should keep in mind what we are asking students to open their personal computers to as a condition of getting an education.

Update (2020-03-28): AppleInsider reports that the newest version of Zoom for iOS no longer sends information to Facebook.

Recommendations on how to communicate during an emergency as the leader of a university community

During this pandemic, I’ve received countless e-mails from my university’s leadership. From the privileged position of an academic pleb with no leadership responsibilities, here are some polite recommendations on how to communicate as the leader of a university community.

1. You cannot be both the voice that manages the response to the emergency, and the voice that reassures and stabilizes the community. You must pick one and delegate the other. Both roles are incredibly important in an emergency, but they are inherently at odds. One must change in response to quickly changing conditions, and incite people to act. The other must remain calm and stable in spite of changing conditions, and make people believe that the confusing things they are being asked to do will work. If you are forced to take on both of these roles, then write your e-mails so that the distinctions between these two roles are very evident (with whitespace, changes in style and voice, etc.)

2. You must not be yet another source of information about the pandemic. People are already facing dozens of often conflicting bits of information about how to protect themselves, how bad things are getting, and what the future will look like. Direct them to authoritative and centralized sources of information but in your own communications only repeat information that is specific to your community.

3. The things you want people to act on should be extremely, painfully obvious. The action points should be presented early, in italics, bolded, and with flame emojis surrounding them. They should be stated simply and firmly as orders to the entire community. (If they are not orders, then they don’t need to be coming from you.)

🔥🔥🔥4. Acknowledge at the beginning and end of every e-mail that this shit is fucked and will be for a while, but everything will be ok in the end.🔥🔥🔥