Tuesday, 16 February 2016

21st century fieldwork

I wish I could say that this is all I brought to the field with me:

Fieldwork kit | 1

Two blow-up toys, a sleeping bag, and a small backpack. I rather admired the monastic look of this scene. Alas, it was never thus. This is what that stuff, and more, was contained in:

Fieldwork kit | 2

Two medium-sized backpacks, and a box of rations to share. (My old backpack, that I got as a young student setting off for fieldwork and has done every fieldwork with me ever since, is still serviceable after 20 years, but I need to send it in for patching and sewing.) The plastic toy isn't mine. My only true concession to the monastic life was to have just two changes of clothes.

So what else were in those bags? Here's one universe of possibilities:

Fieldwork kit | 3

Pens and notebooks (with spares) came along, as did my laptop. I goofed this time, though. I was in such a rush to leave home that I forgot to bring along some old songs and photos for general sharing (my field packing and unpacking includes giving the MacBook Air's hard drive a periodic spring-cleaning) and my (organic) memory doesn't have permanent storage capabilities. As my Batek travel companions hilariously pointed out, I could only remember snatches of lyrics to entertain people with, and filled in the gaps with a lot of la-di-di-da ("you sing only one word at a time—where's the rest of it!").

For power, I used two solar kits (this and this); with rain falling and the sun behind clouds almost every day, I was glad to have two solar batteries (middle of photo). Indeed, other than the pre-charged camera batteries and a couple of disposables to run a GPS receiver, I was entirely on solar power. I seem to have finally devised the ideal PV system that literally travels on my back and imposes natural limits on my geeky tendencies, forcing me to spend most of the time on good old participant observation.

The iPhone continues to be a trusty companion, now with a new attachment—a mic that enables audio recording in .wav format. For the same purpose—getting archival quality uncompressed files—I'm also using a Zoom HN5 (portable handheld digital recorder—top centre of the photo). The iPhone got used a bit more; it's more portable and quicker to whip out at a moment's notice. I haven't yet compared audio quality across devices, though I should.

For photography, I'm approaching wretched excess, I suppose. My beloved Nikon D700 is on permanent standby (only one lens brought to the field this time: 50mm 1.4—my favourite) but I'm also using the iPhone camera a lot more now. The division of labour between cameras is about 50-50, with the D700 for "important" shots (rough yardstick: "this image needs to be lovingly preserved in RAW format"), and the iPhone for functional shots, memory aids and, my favourite use of it, panoramas (examples here). But as you can see from the photo above, I also now have a Sony mirrorless camera, the Alpha 6000. Originally I was looking for a lightweight but good pocket camera to take the strain off my shoulders, but I can't wean off the D700 after all. So the a6000 is now for movie recording (impressive audio capture and subject tracking, I must say) and extremes of low light (24 MP!). In short, boys and girls, instead of each new camera replacing the previous one (as the D700 had replaced the Nikon D70, and the D70 the Nikon FM2), I seem to be sprouting new photographic wings, exploring different image-making possibilities with different devices simultaneously. To what end, I wonder.

The main issue now is to develop a more-or-less efficient workflow. One does get swamped with data, none of which is useful unless properly organised, categorised, and integrated across media. Right now, for example, I'm annotating video and audio data, and keywording photos. Recently I was admiring my workflow in Cambodia, the care I put into designing useful keywords and writing photo descriptions most days in the field. Because those descriptions were written on the same day the photos were shot, they have an immediacy and vividness to them that you just don't get if you're writing years after the fact, when the feelings and sensations have been nudged aside by other feelings and sensations. Doing fieldwork with farmers in Cambodia is very different from fieldwork with hunter-gatherers in Malaysia, though. But I'm trying to go back to those good fieldnote-writing habits... at least I'm now downloading digital data by the day and monitoring progress...(you might notice there's a card reader hidden among the wires in the photo above; it too comes along on fieldwork).

Now, about those inflatable toys in the first photo above. It's all about age. Youthful injuries have, I suppose, caught up with me; I'll spare you the details, but I do increasingly appreciate the little luxuries like a super-comfy air mattress that folds down to the size of a hot dog (no, don't go there...).  I don't normally sleep more than four hours per night (I take naps, gloriously long naps) but with that air mattress I can get seven hours in, no problem, and wake up refreshed, ready for participant observation...

I'll try to post more in the next few months, but I'll be in and out of the field, collecting and processing data (did you hear that, students?).

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Latest fieldwork photos: Penan

A few early photos from this year's fieldwork:

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015

Fieldwork 2015
View this iPhone panorama in large size on Flickr

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Cyborg anthropology: catching the sun (2)

If you've been waiting for updates on my adventures with the solar kit, it's a bit like watching the kettle boil. Little to report so far.

I had some trouble with the V72 battery (the one that stores power from the solar panels); it seemed to be leaking power, with the lights on the charge indicator dropping overnight from 5 (100%) to 4 (80%) while sitting idle. Tony at Voltaic Systems helpfully responded:

"The most likely explanation is that the battery and battery capacity are actually totally fine, but the LED indicator is not working properly and looks like 4/5 LED's when really the battery is totally full. Another option is that the battery capacity really is leaking which is a serious (and rare) problem, and can be diagnosed by simply charging the battery to full and letting it sit idle for 7 or more days. If the LED's continue to drop over that time then it is draining power."

So, acting on advice, I charged the V72 battery to full. That was 4 days ago, and it remains full. No apparent power leakage so far. I think the problem might be that previous charges weren't quite full and I over-estimated the battery's capacity. This time I just charged till the LED indicator stopped blinking. It continues to not-blink.

I was able to charge up my MacBook Air (with the V72 battery partially unplugged from the solar panels) from 10% to 98%. That took about 80 minutes. Now I'm waiting for the MacBook power to run low again before recharging with the V72 battery. I work mostly on another computer and only take out the MacBook Air twice a week for lecture presentations; even after running one recorded Keynote slideshow, battery capacity remains at 52%. I haven't got anything else that needs charging at the moment! (I'm only testing equipment that I'll use in fieldwork.)

Tony provides additional tips about charging the Mac: "The power draw of the macbook is much greater than what the panel can provide, so even when it is plugged in to the solar panel the V72 will be slowly drained. The LED's drop down dramatically because the system is adjusting to the power requirements of the macbook, but there is still plenty of power left in the battery itself. This phenomenon is seen in all V72's. The good news is that all of the power inside the V72 is still available to go into the macbook, to bring it approximately 60%-100% full from 0% depending on the size of your screen, screen brightness, and power needs from the user while charging. For the best charging experience, recharge your macbook when it is asleep or turned off to stretch the battery capacity of the V72."

In short: watching the V72 battery for signs of power leakage; waiting for another device to run out of power before testing the V72 battery again. I told you: like watching the kettle boil...

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Cyborg anthropology: catching the sun (1)

C08-3059I've used solar kits in the field before: photo on left is from my 2005 Cambodia fieldwork, and shows the (monocrystalline) solar panels catching sunlight from the roof of the car (with bemused 4-legged audience). The kit worked fine, but obviously wasn't too portable (I mean walkable, for ambulatory fieldwork). For Sarawak fieldwork (2009–2010) I used Thin Film PV panels: again, worked great but not made for ambulatory fieldwork (NB: Thin Film PV panels are also much lighter and apparently more energy efficient than the monocrystalline ones). In both cases, power was stored using heavy car batteries.

I'm off to fieldwork again, and this time I'm going to use a 20W folding solar panel from Voltaic Systems, which comes with a V72 laptop battery for storing the power. What I like best: rugged, compact, and portable! Kit that can be stuffed in my backpack and pulled out as needed.

I won't be starting fieldwork for months yet, but I like to test / check equipment early. I'm not much of a mechanic or engineer: my most sophisticated problem-solving tools are tape, superglue, and string. So I don't want to deal with equipment failure in the middle of fieldwork in the forest. I thought I'd document these "tests" a bit systematically, and blog on them here. I don't really have much time for this, but it doesn't require a lot of time to hang a solar panel and run power into a battery.

So here's how I hang the panel on my verandah (note plastic string):

Solar kit test 1

This is really not the smartest way: the panel should be slanted to catch sunlight better, but there'll be a lot of shade under the forest canopy so I suppose this setup mimics (some) field conditions.

And it works...

Solar kit test 1

Power flows into the battery from the solar panel via the red wire, and output to charge the iPad is with the USB cable. If you squint closely at the top left of the battery (note its size relative to the iPad) you'll see that the "charge indicator" (blinking red lights) is on, meaning that power is flowing into the battery from the panel.

Here's what the sky looked like at this time (8 am-ish):

Solar kit test 1

Cloudy, as you can see. I'm facing northwest here.

By mid-afternoon (3:30pm), sunlight's pouring into the verandah, and I've got my solar lantern charging away too.

Solar kit test 1

The lantern is strictly for home use; I'm trying to reduce electricity use. This lantern is too bulky, anyway, and not as efficient as the tiny Waka Waka Solar (flash)Light, which I'm definitely taking to the field with me. And why is the iPad still charging 7 hours after setup? Because I forgot to "on" the battery and didn't realise for several hours that the iPad wasn't charging! Note to self: remember to tap the "on" switch to start charging USB devices.

Results: iPad fully charged to 100% (from 60%), but need to drain it completely to check time needed for a full charge; took another few hours next day to fully "fill up" the battery from 80%.

Not bad: my solar kit works. Now to check charging times for different devices from 0 to 100% under various conditions of light and shade.

Now the question: why "cyborg anthropology"? Well, cyborg anthropology is "a framework for understanding the effects of objects and technology on humans and culture." As I've noted before, with all the high-tech equipment we (that is, I) lug to the field these days, anthropologists are cyborgs too. When I first started fieldwork, mobile phones were probably in the techno-cultural landscape somewhere in the world, but they weren't in the forest and certainly not in my backpack (I finally succumbed and bought my first mobile phone in 2004, and then only because somebody else paid for it). Nowadays... I once (accidentally) received text messages while fishing with the Batek. And if I wanted to, I could bombard Batek friends everyday with endless ethnographic questions from the comfort of my verandah: doing ethnography by remote control. (I don't, though: we don't have prolonged conversations on the phone, though we do talk) How all these technological changes affect the quality of ethnography produced is something worth thinking about.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

New blog: International Summer School in Southeast Asian Studies

Interested in Southeast Asia, the study of, the thinking about, the living in?

We have a new blog, mainly to showcase the work of our postgraduate participants in the International Summer School in Southeast Asian Studies, an annual two-week programme jointly-organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang (USM), the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Humboldt Universit├Ąt zu Berlin (IAAW-HU), and Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta (UGM). Check it out here.

I am one of the contributors, yes...

We've only just set it up; come back frequently.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Aliran Down the Ages

Here's a bit of Malaysian social history, as seen through the work of Aliran, Malaysia's oldest human rights group. Watch how information dissemination styles have changed since the 1970s, when the group was founded. Past 2010, all the images (and video) were shot by me.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Call for Papers: the Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 11)

The Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 11) will be held in Vienna, September 7-11, 2015. The CALL FOR PAPERS has been announced here:


Deadline for submission of abstracts is February 20, 2015.

"All accepted session abstracts can be viewed online at our CHAGS 11 website. We mandate that ALL individual participants need to register and submit their abstracts via our online form, where papers can be directly submitted to a specific session. Participants may present ONE paper or poster as main authors and may be credited with co-authorship of one or more additional papers. The call will remain open till February 20. Shortly thereafter session organizers will select abstracts and administer their session to ensure final decisions about submitted abstracts by March. Notifications to individual participants will be sent out shortly thereafter. Early-bird registration will start in February. We have applied for funding for colleagues who are in need of travel support at various institutions but have no confirmation yet. There will be a separate announcement for this."

Sponsoring organisation:

International Society for Hunter Gatherer Research (ISHGR) http://ishgr.org/