Posts tagged “notes”

Greg’s War Story: Taking notes, getting detained (sort of)

Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In this story, his best practices bring some unwanted attention.

In the summer of 2010, when I first arrived to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, I was unsure about how I would fit into a military culture. Just being from California created a cognitive barrier for most my military colleagues. Simply put, there were a lot of “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes.

In any case, the first couple of weeks involved me playing catch up and learning everything I could about the assigned area and region. I took copious notes all the time to help jog my memory and capture information that would come in handy later on. My hope was to refer back to these notes and re-create the picture people were creating themselves based on scanty information.

In a war environment, you hear stories all the time and you never know what is real or not. The jargon further complicates the situation and makes it difficult for one to navigate people, places, and things, all of which tend to be obscured in military code.

One evening, I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with my liaison, Mike. He was facilitating an introduction to a detachment commander who I would work for over the next 12 months. Depending on how the meeting went, the commander would decide to bring me on board as a social scientist to work with him and his unit. I had tried to meet the commander earlier, but it was unclear where he was. His men told me he was busy in the port-a-john, but I think those guys were testing my wits. Long story short (and bathroom humor aside), we coordinated a meeting that night.

While I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with the commander, I noticed a large gathering of soldiers and civilians in an open area. In my curiosity, I wondered if there was something I needed to be in the know about. There was approximately 50 or so people gathering around a projector to watch a PowerPoint presentation projected on the side of a wall. I assumed the crowd was too large to accommodate on this small base where work areas were tight. Doing this outside made no sense because fighter jets flew and were so loud it could cause permanent hearing damage. I thought to myself, “Well, since they are doing this presentation out in the open, the information can’t be that sensitive. Surely taking a few notes or jottings couldn’t hurt?”

This presentation took place right before I would be heading out into the field. As it started and I began writing things down, I started to feel more than a bit uneasy about what I was hearing. The gentleman started off by explaining this fighting season was the bloodiest since 2007 A chart detailed the number of significant events (SIGACTS) and quantitative information about those killed in action, enemies killed in action, those wounded in action, improvised explosive devices found, indirect fire attacks, etcetera. Cough, ahem. I stopped myself at this point for a couple reasons:

First, I did not want to walk around with this in my notebook in case I lost it and the enemy had eyes on this information. Second, I was sure this could come back a bite me somehow. I immediately became nervous because of what I already had written down. I started thinking to myself as well: I don’t really need to be here.

As I started moving back, my actions caught the attention of a very attentive Sergeant Major. Sergeant Majors feed off opportunities to explode and make examples of others to reinforce the nature of their authority and rank. A strange civilian was the perfect feeding opportunity. Indeed, when I caught a glance at others in this crowd, no one else was taking notes or writing down information. “I’m dead,” I thought to myself.

Before I knew it, this dude’s eyes were piercing through me and he pointed at me to stop moving as he came over to me. He yanked me out of the crowd, and starting barking questions at me, hands on his hips and head leaning forward: “What are you doing?! What were you writing?! Who do you work for?!” Frozen, I muttered something to the effect of “Uh, I, I’m just an analyst.”

He took away my notebook and identification card and told me to follow him. The fact I did not have a security badge did not help my case and only contributed to the uneasy feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach.

He sat me down in the operations center near the legal officer. He pointed at me and explained to others that he had caught me taking notes. He assigned a soldier to guard me while he figured out how to handle the situation. As I sat on the couch with another soldier staring coldly at me, I gazed around the operations center. There was a white board with a funny quote about strippers, an empty office with a blow-up doll in it (oddly enough!), and some metallic signs on the walls demonstrating football fan territory.

These guys were pretty laid back, but I had broken the social contract and had no idea what the repercussions would be. At this point, I wished I had just stayed in my sleeping quarters. A phone call to my liaison Mike was my get-out-of-jail-free card. The Sergeant Major explained the situation to him and the JAG (legal) officer.

The JAG officer called me into his office and explained to me the nature of note-taking in a sensitive environment. Even though the presentation was out in the open, my act of taking notes classified my entire notebook. He handed the notebook back to me and I was on my way. I never saw the guy who detained me again. I wanted to simply get out, lick my wounds, and meet the commander who was waiting for me. The commander, who was not terribly impressed with my antics, laughed about my story. He decided to bring me on board on the spot despite my initial casting as a troublemaker. I like to think this gave me an edge or maybe he saw value in having me around to take notes (ironically) and provide insight into the strange cultural environment he was about to encounter.

I shook off the embarrassment, but it was a story that got a few laughs in my organization: “Human terrain guy detained for taking notes.” For me, it set the tone for the abrasiveness of military culture and reinforced my status as an outsider. I learned to be cautious about what I would capture in field notes and the sensitivity of collecting information in a war environment.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Subway To Start Tessellating Cheese July 1? [The Consumerist] – Three years after the protests began, it seems Subway has finally listened to its customers and will start tessellating cheese on its sandwiches, according to what appears to be an internal weekly newsletter. As anyone who has gotten a Subway sandwich knows, most Subways layer their isosceles-cut cheese in an overlapping fashion. This means one side of the sandwich gets more cheese than the other and leaves pockets of zero cheese, resulting in a uneven flavor and texture distribution. As the newsletter says, "This will improve the cheese coverage on the sandwiches."
  • Reading Lolita On Paper [] – Throughout the final terrifying third act of the book, Nabokov knew that the reader would be constantly, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, seeking (or deliberately avoiding seeking) a single word, a word whose distinctive typographical form would light up like a flare in the reader’s peripheral vision, paragraphs in advance, impossible to miss. Every time you turn a page, even if you avoid it, your eyes will, in an instant, claw through the one-thousand characters in every new two-page spread to find it, the word, the single characteristic letter. He plays with this visual expectation so thoroughly — torments the reader, in fact — that it’s inconceivable that he wasn’t always thinking about printed words, words on pages being turned in a reader’s hands. Oh, how glad am I that I was unable to find Lolita in any sort of eBook format.
  • Kno is a digital textbook that is about to change the way knowledge is transmitted and the way students learn – First we did our homework about the way students do their homework. We studied the way they study. We probed them about the best way to re-imagine the analog studying and reading experience in the digital world. The Kno’s two generous panels open like written material has opened for hundreds of years. The experience is reassuringly book-like. Indeed, because we respect and honor the textbook, content of 99 percent of all textbooks – including the charts and graphs – fit flawlessly. No material spills beyond the screen, so there’s no awkward scrolling or manipulation required. If Kno only transferred existing textbooks into a digital form, we might as well sleep in and skip class. Kno pushes further than that. Our mission is to create a new kind of immersive, fluid, fully-engaging learning experience – made possible because the power of the physical is combined, for the first time, with the potential of the digital. It’s a whole new form factor that feels natural because it is natural.
  • Christina York’s sketched notes from UPA2010 – [Her summary of my presentation begins on slide 5] This was the perfect complement to Rachel Hinman’s opening keynote. Steve enthusiastically dives deeper into cultural clues, cues and gaps that impact our work and our own experiences in this world. In this session I sat at the front, which I usually don’t do (I like to observe the entire room). However, I am a fan of Steve’s and was like a groupie in the front row. How embarrassing. But Carol sat next to me, and I felt better about myself. Steve delivered an impassioned talk and engaged an audience that richly represented the cultures present at this conference. The group discussion was as rich as the presentation and I really appreciated that Steve’s focus was to give us something to think about and not try to ground everything in application.
  • Complete Beginner’s Guide to Design Research [UX Booth] – Valiant attempt to take a complex volume of expertise and boil it down to some essentials. Not sure what it means to be a "luminary" in this field but certainly the company we're listed with is pretty awesome. Curious to hear what others have to say about this piece.

Designing for Emergence

A recent BayCHI panel on Designing systems with emergent behavior featured Tim Brown (IDEO), Peter Merholz (Adaptive Path), Larry Cornett (Yahoo), and Joy Mountford (Yahoo), and was moderated by Rashmi Sinha.

My notes are up on Core77

Tim: Contrast that with physical design where you have more chances to test prototypes, with rapidly changing software, it’s too easy to do something new. Seems like a new feature got launched before a design process happened. Maybe they didn’t get to test it a little bit. Not referring to Beta, in videogames they are always testing all the time. It’s part of the design process. He prefers that to the classic Alpha Beta approach

Cross-Cultural Research

Notes from my UXWeek session are online (not sure how helpful they are without hearing me talk through the issues, (Update: you can hear me talk through the issues here) but if you want to, check out Dan Saffer’s notes or the notes from the wiki.


Hawai’i makai/mauka signs
different orientation toward navigation: toward mountain, toward ocean
difference in how we move through space

so what?
mundane observations reveal differences in cultural needs or drivers

My morning at AD:TECH

(click on any picture to enlarge it)

Today I spent a little bit of time at AD:TECH. To set the frame of reference here – this (interactive technology for advertising) isn’t my field; I went out of curiosity and a chance to meet a friend for lunch. I attended the opening keynote and looked around the exhibit hall. There are several days of presentations and seminars that I didn’t experience.

The opening keynote featured John Costello, Executive Vice President, Merchandising & Marketing, The Home Depot, and Mary Meeker, who watches Internet and advertising for Morgan Stanley (I seem to remember a detailed New Yorker profile of her a few years back; perhaps before the bubble burst).

John Costello (all quotes approximate): “I am often asked how many brand managers do we have? The answer is 325,000 – the number of associates we have.” He went on to stress how all the touchpoints for the customer need to work together. You may see a great ad on TV but if you go to the website and it’s difficult to use, it’s no good. This isn’t so trite because as much as it’s a good idea, it’s just not practiced that way. Home Depot certainly isn’t living up to Costello’s idea. My bad experience with their “clinics” here and see here for their non-response when I tried to resolve it.

Mary gave a really dense presentation, but reassured us that the slides were online. They are, and for now you can read ’em here. I’ll excerpt a few slides that I really liked; I’m not sure what to make out of any of it, just a bunch of factoids that seem provocative and worthy of filing.

Here’s the top five Internet companies (I didn’t know that was the list; interesting) – this slide shows what they were worth before 2000, before they went public, what they were worth at the highest point in the market, what they were worth at the lowest point (and kinda interesting to be reminded of those dates; 3/10/00 and 10/9/02) and here’s what they are worth now – so there is more worth there now than before the crash. It’s one of many angles on ‘recovery’ in the tech sector (hey it feels cool to say “the tech sector”).

These two slides are just some data points to consider when thinking about the various online, mobile, phone, data, wireless, etc. markets around the world. Here’s who the analysts are watching and what they are thinking about…

You’ll need to click on this one to make it bigger in order to see the details; the point here is looking at the number of different services or products (depending on your perspective) that Yahoo has launched in 2003, 2004, and so far in 2005. You can see just by the shape that this year already is as many products as in 2004. This was all under the category of User Experience, but she used that phrase interchangably with other phrases like User Interface, so it wasn’t always clear what exactly she meant. But the slide seemed interesting anyway.

This took a bit of thinking about, looking at different countries, how many PCs do they have and how many mobile phones, and the ratio of the two. The U.S. has the lowest ratio, China has the higest. So the relative prominence of phone vs. PC as platforms for daily info-living, and as opportunities for innovation, etc. are extremely different in these different markets.

Mary, an avid golfer, recounted the recent Tiger Woods dramatic shot at the 16th hole in Augusta, and considered a scenario where someone missed it and wanted to watch it – they’d willingly watch an ad for it, or pay to see it (she suggested $1.00 is what people would pay to see it, but that’s ridiculous). But if you go into Google and Yahoo, you can’t find it. Even if you look in their video search, you can’t find it. You can find it on a blog, where it was turned it into a hypothetical Nike ad. Somehow in this story Mary seemed to imply that it wasn’t really available in that case. She seems to deny blogs (or anything that comes from the consumer side of the equation) as an invalid source of content not to be taken seriously. Yes, there were no rights clearances, but of course, the information gets out anyway. Hello, BitTorrent?! The fact that the only way she could show us this clip was to use the file she found on this blog (and then put into her presentation) seemed to be ignored, since the real problem was that Google and Yahoo didn’t have the clip in their systems. I don’t get that.

In the Q&A there was some emphasis on the future successful companies being those that place the premium on customer service – citing Amazon Prime as an example, but then both speakers seemed to flip between customer service and customer experience. She cited, but couldn’t remember the specifics, a recent book by a professor (Jeff?) in Pennsylvania? who makes the case for the last great competitive advantage being user interface, and she went on to suggest the web is the best user interface, better than an in-store Starbucks experience. Clearly we see why Mary is an online person because her contention, if I understood it, is just silly. I’d be interested in finding out what book she’s referring to, so if you have any ideas, let me know.

The trade show itself was the usual – booths with people in matching t-shirts being extremely extroverted. But it was working – the place was noisy and jam-packed and people were shaking hands and swapping business cards and just being business people in deal-making mode, I guess. There were the usual trinkets – things that flashed, bent, bounced, squeezed, etc. and lots of iPod giveaways. It wasn’t very intersting to me; it was companies with names like AdBrite, AdDrive, AdDynamix, adInterax, Adknowledge, adMarketplace, Adteractive or AdTools; and Eyeblaster; Search Engine Optimization, Search For It, SearchAdNetwork,,, SearchIgnite, SearchRev, and; as well as companies that I recognized because they serve the annoying pop-up ads on websites I visit: ZEDO and Undertone.

There were a few of the usual booth babes, and all you really see in this picture is some nice blonde hair, but some women manning booths were obviously models, at least one wore a t-shirt with a slogan across her chest that was something about looking up top. Hmm.

I found this variation quite unusual

A gymnast? Or, a slinky woman in skintight lyrca, twisting her body in interesting ways. Oh, and how’d you like to buy some advertising services?

Looks like she’s in need of some advertising services herself. Cheese!

Attendees engaged in some sort of SMS swordfight.

Google’s booth. Is that a real George Nelson Marshmallow Sofa?


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