Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tales from Corporate Ethnography

If you haven't already seen it, please cruise over to Grant McCracken's blog on consumption and ethnographic research. A few days ago he posted some first-person experiences in the corporate ethnography trenches for The Coca-Cola Company and McDonald's. It's hilarious, and a must-read for the applied ethnography crowd (hint: it involves a researcher interviewing people at the drive-through window).

Commercial ethnography is sometimes the method of last resort. All other methods, quantitative and qualitative, have been tried and all have failed.

That's why, a couple of years ago, I got a call from The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC). A great torrent of Coke flows through McDonald's every day. So TCCC was particularly concerned by a new finding: that consumers order a smaller size of Coke when passing through the drive-through than when ordering indoors at the counter. Multiply this difference (even if it’s just 3 ounces) by millions of drinks per day over thousands of outlets, and you get the idea.

Click here to read the full article.

A Question of Skin Color

An old committee member of mine once told me, "If you want to read good anthropological topics, just open the newspaper." Today the LA Times is running a Column One article on skin whitening products marketed to the local Asian American community in So Cal.

Whitening products have been a mainstay in Asia for decades, but cosmetics industry officials said they have emerged as a hot seller in the United States only in the last four years. Whitening products now rack up $10 million in sales a year, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

But their popularity has sparked a debate in the Asian American community about the politics of whitening. Qui and others say the quest for white skin is an Asian tradition. But others — younger, American-born Asians — question whether the obsession with an ivory complexion has more to do with blending into white American culture, or even a subtle prejudice against those with darker skin.

The market research firm says cosmetics companies have taken note of the sensitivity, saying their Asian skin products in America are intended not for "whitening" but for "brightening."

"It's not a politically correct term because it seems to imply that looking Caucasian via a white complexion is the desired beauty goal," said Virginia Lee, a Euromonitor analyst.

But it's not just a generational difference in attitude. Skin color and racial classifications have been at the core of anthropological research for well over a century, teasing out cultural constructions of behavior and attitudes that rely on phenotypic markers to "explain" their underlying causes. Take the following exchange between a husban and wife as one such example:

It's OK for American women to be darker, said her husband Lei Sun, a 36-year-old sushi chef. "It's part of the sports thing."

But Lei Sun prefers lighter-skinned Asian women, saying that they embody the traditional ideal known as si si wen wen. He looked to his wife to explain the concept.

"That means when a lady stands there with white skin and is very polite, and when she laughs, she doesn't make a big noise," Qiu said.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Critical Mass

It's Testing Time. Posted by Picasa

The Happy Staff at Assessment Central is quickly approaching critical mass. Today, and several days last week, we hit our theoretical maximum for accomodating test takers (close to 400 testing units/day), so The Angry Anthropologists is quickly becoming the Burned-Out Bureaucrat. Keep tuned in, however, and I'll post a few more of the comical responses and questions we continuously get during the peak July/August season.

Did make a few template changes, and added another section from folks I have enjoyed reading.

Lastly, remember that if you loose your sense of humor in lines of sweating, angst-ridden undergraduates waiting to be tested, advised, and counseled, you'll look like the following:

And before you get your classes.... Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 21, 2005

L.A. Street Life

It's Alternative News Thursday, and the latest LA Weekly includes an interesting article on the downtown weekend shopping hub in the Fashion District. But, if you want an even more culturally dislocating marketing experience, try walking around greater Koreatown on an early Saturday evening when the Latino sidewalk hawkers lay out their wares for sale.

Talk about street life: The 20 blocks that are devoted to low-end but extremely high-volume retail sales are mobbed on weekends. This is where the immigrant underclass shops, arriving on foot and by bus, buying everything from designer seconds to overstock to bootleg DVDs and lovebirds, meantime eating sliced mangoes, watermelon and cucumbers with lime, salt and chile, while the tantalizing smell of sausages cooking with onions and peppers on sidewalk grills wafts over the crowd. The scene along the series of alleys and covered passageways and sidewalks — where shops spill out onto the street and vendors from all nations hawk their wares, some even climbing ladders in order to maximize visibility over the elbow-to-elbow hubbub — is vivid, tactile, like an outdoor souk or bazaar.

This isn’t the nice and neat American Way of Shopping with which Angelenos are all so familiar, but it sure is more interesting. There are no chain stores here. Ninety-five percent of retailers are mom-and-pop enterprises employing five or fewer people. Even St. Joseph’s Church has exploited its Fashion District location, having built out the circumference of its property with retail stores and paying its monthly dues into the local business improvement district. But while retail sales are estimated at an impressive $1 billion annually, it’s the $7 billion wholesale industry that booms.

“The Intersection,” as it’s called, at Ninth and Los Angeles, has more square footage devoted to the fashion industry than anywhere in the universe — with the huge California Market Center, the largest apparel wholesale mart in the U.S., on one corner, and the Cooper Building, the Streamline Modern Gerry Building, and the New Mart on the other corners. Southern California has lost 30,000 manufacturing jobs, mostly to China, but they’ve been replaced with higher-skilled, better-paying jobs in the wholesale business, and L.A. now has more apparel jobs than New York City....

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Consumption Wars: Starbucks - Here, and Across the Pond

A hectic day at the office, so forgive the evening posting. Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily, I noticed two articles which discuss varying attitudes towards corporate standardization of coffee products (id est, Starbucks), more or less.

On this side of the Big Pond is the latest work by Rebecca Solnit on the lost art of getting lost:

We live in an increasingly standardized environment, bouncing from one branch of Starbucks to another, and it's almost impossible to get truly lost thanks to technology. Solnit believes that our fear of not knowing where we are is partly due to our inability to read the language of nature. "There's an art to attending to the weather, to the route you take, to the landmarks along the way. . . . And there's another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn't cause for panic or suffering."

And some thousands of miles away, a London-based writer pubically admits to a consumption addiction:

This isn't a particularly easy thing for me to admit, but then dark confessions so rarely are. I have a certain predilection, shall we say, for Starbucks. Granted, I'm not overly proud of being a regular, sometimes daily, visitor to the coffee house's answer to McDonald's, but I must be a fairly loyal one. My pocket calculator tells me that, rather obscenely, I spend somewhere in the region of £440 a year in branches across London.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Assessment Train at Happy Times CC

While most Angelinos, especially those living inland, are complaining about the unbearable heat this week, the TAA and staff/friends are dealing with another onslaught of record-breaking proportions: registration and assessment testing of new students at Happy Times CC in the San Gabriel Valley.

An annual event for staff and students, this year seems to be particularly busy. If the numbers keep up, we'll have almost 14,000 standardized tests administered in our office through August. So, while I had hoped to keep up with the blogging, I may need to take several days off for both physical and mental retooling. You would too, given some of the questions and statements typically heard this time of the year, such as:

I'm here for my replacement test.
You mean your placement test?
Yeah, that's what I said - my replacement test.

Hello, Testing Services.
Yes, hello. I need to ask you a question about financial aid.
This isn't the Financial Aid Office, why don't you call them directly? We can't help you with any financial aid questions. They're in another building.
They're not picking up their phone - but you guys are.

What tests do you need to take today?
Umm, uhmm.... (silence)
Hello? [Hand wave by testing staff member.]
[Bewildered look by student at front desk.]
What tests to you need to take? Why are you in this office?
I don't know.....

Do you have any form of photo identification with you?
Nah, I've only got my driver's license.
That is a form of ID!
No it's not - it's a license.

Multiply this by a factor of thousands, and you'll feel just like everyone else in this office - at least until the semester begins.

American Junk 'N Stuff

From the popular-culture-meets-material-culture files, Tom Vanderbilt writes about the burgeoning trade in self-storage units in the U.S. in today's edition of Slate.

What this translates into, apart from one hell of a lot of stationary bikes kept behind padlocked metal doors, is an industry that now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood (and doesn't have to deal with Tom Cruise). One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space—an increase of some 75 percent from 1995. Most operators of self-storage facilities report 90 percent occupancy, with average stints among its renters of 15 months. Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of self-storage units on the market.

How did self storage, or "mini storage," as it's sometimes called, become such an enormous enterprise? And what on earth are people keeping in there?

In a word? Junk! I've dealt with the accumulation of multiple lifetimes when my father remarried several years ago. Dad and my stepmom had sizeable collections of furniture, art, and things that annoyingly clutter any stable shelf in a household. Merging two households into one would seem to most folk a problem requiring cleaning, selling, and organizing what's left. They opted for the new American course of "putting in storage," including two storage units and a garage that can no longer accomodate a car. And every time I'm summoned to help the elders resort and relabel (which they do often, but never get rid of it), I feel a bit like a reluctant archaeologist (not my field of expertise, nor my liking).

Enough of my rants. It's been a bad week.

Monday, July 11, 2005

American Gothic Returns to the Corn Fields

The little house behind the big picture. Posted by Picasa

Big news from the wilds of Iowa. The famous American Gothic painting by Grant Wood will travel to Cedar Rapids from the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, as reported in the Chicago Tribune last weekend.

Their faces won't betray it, but the farm couple in "American Gothic" are getting a rare chance to visit their hometown this fall, a leave granted in light of their 75 years together.

Almost since its completion, the painting has been owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, which paid artist Grant Wood $300 for it in late 1930, after it won third place in a juried show there. The work was an immediate sensation and remains a signature holding of the museum. And its dour duo, the man with his hay fork, the woman in her prim apron, are among pop culture's more recognized and mercilessly parodied images.

The institute rarely lends the piece, because it is fragile and its absence would disappoint so many visitors.

"It's one of our `destination' pictures," said Judith Barter, curator of American art.

But in early September, its destination will be Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wood's boyhood home will get to see "American Gothic" from Sept. 10 to Dec. 4, when the painting will star in a major exhibition of his works in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

You'll find the American Gothic House down near the Missouri border in Eldon, Iowa - and I've been there (on a summer trip in which copious amounts of fireworks were purchased in the Show Me The Money state). A picture and brief description can be found here. It's surprisingly off the beaten path, with about a half dozen signs in Eldon sending you on detour-laden trip to a dusty road, and a sharp corner with a rusting metal barn, across from which is the house - much smaller than the painting makes it look - and a historical marker. So, the TAA gets double braggings rights, having seen the painting in person, and the house.

Consequences of Wealth in China

A good article from the front page of today's LA Times discusses the unintended consequences of China's rapidly-expanding economy: psychological pressure on young professionals to succeed and and consume more goods.

Experts say the very forces that provide unprecedented opportunity for young people in the new China are also delivering unprecedented stress, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas. Common among young Chinese is a feeling that they're living in a once-in-a-few-centuries era when dynasties topple and individual fortunes are made — and that they're missing out.

"The whole society is impatient, especially the young people," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "President Hu Jintao said recently we Chinese must be modest and cautious and avoid arrogance. Of course, that means we're none of these things."

Though pressure to do well is evident almost everywhere in the world, experts say it's greater in China in part because people here think the nation has arrived late to the global economic party and needs to make up for lost time. Catching up economically with rich neighbors such as Japan and South Korea is seen as a way of "regaining" China's rightful place on the international stage.

Insecurity among young professionals, often manifest in frenzied job-hopping, is fueled by media coverage of the super-rich, such as online-game mogul Chen Tianqiao, worth an estimated $1.05 billion at age 31. Or Huang Guangyu, founder of electronic retailer GoMe, estimated to be worth $1.3 billion at 35. Or thirtysomething Ding Lei of Internet portal NetEase, at $668 million.

By most measures, Wang Sujun is doing well. The 32-year-old has a master's degree from Peking University, China's Harvard, and a prestigious job with Beijing Mobile, a major telecommunications company. He says he's happily married and in March welcomed the arrival of a healthy daughter, Zizuo. In a country where the average annual salary is less than $1,000, he's making more than 11 times that much.

But Wang doesn't feel successful.

"Life is so stressful, I feel enormous pressure on my shoulders all the time," he said, his words tumbling out in a series of rapid bursts. "If I could only do better somehow, I might become rich and happy."

When he meets with his three best friends, they talk about what they need to be more successful. Wang wants more money, and he worries that his peers have better jobs, nicer apartments, fancier cars.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Friday Afternoon Burnout

Another workweek ends on a slightly dour note - the test-takers at the Little College were thoroughly enervating this week, and a time series analysis of their placement scores would probably show a linear (negative) relationship between time of the month and their respective scores, based on previous experience.

But on a more happy note, LA Alternative Press has published its Best Of Alternative LA List for perusal and debate. Two of the better alternatives are close to my heart:

The Best Alternative to TalkingSit Down and Shut Up
Los Angeles has long been plagued by a relentless virus called verbal diarrhea. The symptoms are as follows: aimless babble, continuous celebrity chatter, smooth speech and pet-induced gibberish. The virulent infection has spread so fast, few Angelenos realize they are constantly showered with hogwash and spewing baloney. There is one temporary treatment available for this syntactic sickness, but it requires the sick to check into “silence clinics.” They spend a day, week, month or longer on a silent retreat, where they eat, meditate, do yoga and other spiritual practices of choice without uttering a word. Upon discharge, people are known to have sharpened senses and clearer minds. It’s up to you to bring an end to this epidemic by treating yourself to a silent retreat. Otherwise, verbal diarrhea will spread throughout the rest of California, the United States and after that nothing will stop it. (Jasmin Persch)

And this one hit a bit too close to home (remember the Vermin on the Mount reading in Chinatown next weekend!):

Best Alternative to Westside Bars for 30+-Year-Old Heavy Drinkers
The “Real” Chinatown If you’re lucky enough to get past the age of 30, and you drink, you suddenly begin searching for more convenient, safer places to do so. If you live on the Eastside, sometimes that trek out to Hollywood or Santa Monica can get dicey, especially if you put a load on. Chinatown then (the real Chinatown, not the one bought and paid for out in the San Gabriel Valley), is a great location because of six major factors:

1) Three bars within feet-and stumbling-distance of each other.
2) Close, and usually free parking in lots.
3) No cops.
4) Quick freeway access: the Pasadena/Harbor/Golden State are a block away.
5) No trouble from any “elements.”
6 ) All bartenders, doormen, and owners are mellow with zero-attitude.

In that main plaza area, between Broadway and Hill, you have Grand Star Jazz Club, Mountain Bar, and Hop Louie. Park in back off of College St.—the only trouble you’ll have is the same homeless dude who’s been in that lot forever asking you for a cigarette. Yeah, sometimes you think about giving him a good smack, but he’s harmless. (Jim Marquez)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bombing Updates

For those who wish to keep up on the details about the London bombings, the Guardian has a real-time blog from the UK.

London Bombings Fallout on the Market

Like most of you, I'm still trying to keep up on the aftermath of today's London bombings while juggling a heavy load at the office, but I couldn't help noticing that on Slate Daniel Gross comments on what financial markets might make of this trauma (given that about >90% of economics is psychology - especially on the trading floor).

Talking about a market session in the middle of it is like writing the story about a baseball game in the fourth inning. And the scale of the 7/7 attacks is much smaller and in many ways fundamentally different than the 9/11 attacks; trading never stopped on the London exchanges and New York trading opened on schedule. Still, it's worth noting that the early market reaction to the London bombings shows some striking similarities to the reaction to Sept. 11.

Markets have a lot of muscle memory. And when traders and investors react to crises that crop up, they instinctively and perhaps subconsciously fall back on knowledge and experience. Just as generals always fight the last war, traders grappling with a coordinated terrorist attack on a global financial center to a degree are trading the last event. Today, in the markets in London and New York, we're seeing the lessons of the post-9/11 investment fallout being applied in real time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Win Friends on a Jury

The Times auto section contains the hilarious details of traffic collision case settled out of court in 2003 for a reported $6 million involving a young Paris Hilton-wannabe and an off-duty police officer in Palmdale. Guess who was talking on the cell phone? Obstensibly, the article was about the doubling of cell phone use by drivers in the US since 2000, and limits on auto liability insurance stemming from distracted motorists. But, the details are too good to pass up:

Although the teenager denied using a cellphone at the time of the accident, her phone records showed that she was on a call at the approximate time of the crash."

She said she hung up before the accident," said Hugh J. Grant, the attorney for the young defendant. "The jury didn't believe her."

Indeed, the jury delivered a stunning award: $7.3 million for the officer.

Who was going to pay for this and why did the jury give so much? Many cases involving death or permanent disability result in less compensation to victims. Even many drunk driving cases result in lower awards. But this was no ordinary case.

"It was an angry jury," recalled R. Rex Parris, the Lancaster attorney who represented the police officer.

"It was a very unusual case with some very unusual injury allegations," Grant said.

What inflamed the jury? Was it the cellphone? The fact that the injured defendant was a police officer? The behavior of the defendant?

The teenager "showed up with a $1,000 Louis Vuitton purse and $1,000 spike heels," Parris said. "I just wanted the jury to see the purse again. She didn't want to show it. I asked her if she had the cellphone with her. When she pulled it out, the power was on. She had come to court with a cellphone turned on. The jury was kind of incensed by the whole thing."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Upcoming LA-Lit Events

I've been out of action for couple months (more on that sometime in the future), but to return to true angry form, I'll be dropping in at a couple LA Lit events in the coming weeks.

First, this Saturday Skylight Books will host a panel of countervailing feminist narratives:

Time: Saturday, July 9, 2005 5:00 PM


Beyond Chick-Lit: Busting the stereotypes and publishing limitations of women who write.This remarkable panel of women novelists will discuss the ways in which their literature is challenged by the act of publishing -- why book marketers feel they have to put women writers into categories like Chick-Lit (for which there is no male equivalent), race, sexual orientation, etc because they believe that unless they do, they cannot sell literature by women. They will also discuss how this affects their writing lives and what can be done to change stereotypes about women writers.

And remember, if you hang around Los Feliz Village afterwards you can catch lounge singing icons Marty and Elayne at the Dresden just one block away.

Second, the estimable Mr. Ruland has announced the next Vermin on the Mount reading at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown on Saturday, July 16. Presenters will be Jacob Forman, Lizz Huerta, Wendy Molyneux and Daniel Olivas. Be there.

Liars, Cheats, Spies, and Birders

If you don't have access to the Los Angeles Times, check out today's front page Column One article on birders falling prey to post-9-11 paranoia. It's quite a shock over morning coffee:

Over the last four decades, bird-watchers have flocked to the four manufactured islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where at least 350 different species have been spotted. "It's probably the single most popular birding site in the mid-Atlantic," said Brinkley, who edits the journal North American Birds.

But nowadays it isn't as easy or simple for birders like Brinkley to do what they love. At popular birding sites across the country, they are facing stricter regulations — in some cases being required to hire a police escort — as authorities beef up national security.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have been subject to increased government restrictions and scrutiny at airports and elsewhere. That bird-watchers have become a target is somewhat surprising, since all they do is "walk quietly through the woods," as Brinkley put it.

But those woods are often around military bases, wastewater management plants and dams — places where government authorities fear that terrorists, disguised as birders, could lurk or strike.

And the equipment they carry — binoculars, telescopes and cameras — can make birders look suspicious at first glance. That has been the case at Wisconsin's Jones Island, a peninsula in Milwaukee Harbor about 100 yards from a Coast Guard station and a Navy Reserve station.

Since they have "sophisticated gear and [are] looking at things not normally photographed by the common citizen in this area, they may be stopped and asked a few questions," said Lt. Jamie Rickerson, chief of port operations at the Coast Guard station's Marine Safety office.

Now, I personally know some birders, and they are about as likely a group of terrorists as one might find at a Popular Mechanics reading group. They are also, I might add, much smarter than the minor-league Platos who came up with this policy.