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November 12 2016

“dissolving boundaries”

November 05 2016

About to give a talk at ICLP, where I was a student 19 years ago! (Photo by ICLP Deputy Director Kao Weihung)

November 03 2016

Bird Bike

October 27 2016

Never walk in the woods at night…

October 26 2016

Dappled morning light

October 25 2016

Painted roll down metal door
Early morning in the underground mall

October 16 2016

Picture frame

October 14 2016

Hualien in the claws of light

October 13 2016

I have to remind myself to still take walks… no matter how busy I am.

October 09 2016

I can't breathe. 我抖唔到氣。
Do not wail against the flow.
Topina sleeping on the bookshelf

October 07 2016

When you hear "do-do-do"…
Doing yoga with Topina

September 27 2016

Politics as a Vocation

September 11 2016


Seeing Culture Like a State

(Chinese translation 中文翻譯)

At this year’s Taiwan’s annual anthropology conference, the Taiwan group anthropology blog Guava Anthropology hosted a public event where blog members were invited to give five minute “lightning talks” on the topic of cultural policy. In May, Taiwan’s new Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun 鄭麗君 announced plans to hold a national conference with the aim of establishing a “Basic Cultural Law” for Taiwan.1 These talks were to reflect on both the role of the government in shaping cultural policy and the role of anthropologists in shaping government policy. Below is the English version of the talk I gave in Chinese.2

The State must “see” culture

The central problem facing state cultural policies is the need to make culture visible to the state. After all, if the state can’t “see” culture, how can it regulate it? Post-war Taiwan saw tremendous changes in cultural policy: from promoting China-centric cultural nationalism to embracing multiculturalism. But whether it is mono-culturalism or multiculturalism, whether the state wants to suppress or encourage the development of local cultures, it must first be able to “see” them.

Seeing Culture Changes It

But here’s the thing, the act of making culture visible changes it. How does culture become visible? At the most basic level it gets written down, recorded, and photographed. This act of recording can permanently fix cultural traits that had previously been fluid. When the British did the first census of India they recorded everyone’s caste, in doing so they turned a system which had been much more flexible and fluid into something rigid and fixed. Even the process of recording caste was fraught with conflict as groups petitioned the government to change their caste listing.

How do governments “see” culture when it doesn’t want to be seen?

But sometimes it is difficult for the state to see culture. When Taiwan’s government wanted to suppress the use of local languages in favor of Mandarin it found a way to make students spy on each other. If a student was caught speaking a local language they had to wear a sign saying that they had wear a sign saying “I won’t speak the local language”. The only way to get rid of this sign was to catch another student speaking the local language and make them wear the sign instead.

How does the state see culture that wants to be seen?

Today the policy is reversed, the state wants to encourage the preservation of local languages. There are even funds to support families that use endangered languages in the home. But how to know if the recipients of these funds are actually using the target languages? Early on they would do this by giving written tests, requiring the family to prove that they had learned 300 new vocabulary words each month. But this caused problems because people focused on learning to write and spell new words rather than actually speaking the language in their homes. So they switched to having inspectors make video recordings of the family speaking in their mother tongue. But this hasn’t worked either. Families have taken to memorizing dialogs — little plays they perform for the video cameras.

Visible to whom?

Making culture visible to the state is an act of violence. Whether the government is trying to suppress culture or promote it, it must see it first. So what is the answer? One answer might be to leave the government out of it altogether. But I don’t think that is right. Government is involved whether or not it wants to be. The choices individuals make about their own cultural practices aren’t made in a vacuum, but are shaped by the wider cultural environment and the state has a big say in shaping that environment.

But there are ways of seeing culture that don’t do as much violence to the cultures under observation. It is a lot easier for members of a culture to see their own culture than it is for an outsider. Giving communities greater autonomy over their own cultural policies doesn’t require ripping that culture out of its context in order to be seen. It isn’t enough to simply switch from suppressing a culture to promoting it. The very nature of the relationship between the state and cultural practitioners has to change as well.

  1. Although it seems that plans for such a law, as well as national consultations, were first voted upon in 2011, under the previous administration. 
  2. Please note that 5 minutes does not leave much time for subtlety or nuance. 

August 16 2016


Archiving for the longue durée (Tools we use)

Do you backup? Good. But not good enough.

First, lets talk about backup. A good backup strategy should be regular, redundant, and involve multiple locations. Regular, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you backed up your data the day, week, or month before you accidentally spill your soup on your keyboard. It should be redundant, so that if your backup drive was shorted out by the same thunderstorm that destroyed your computer you still have another copy. And it should involve multiple locations so that if a fire burns down your house there is still a copy of your most important stuff at your parent’s house.

There are lots of ways to make sure you meet these basic requirements. My solution involves:

I feel pretty good about this system. It may not be perfect, but it meets the minimal requirements I listed above. However, it isn’t good enough for me, and it might not be good enough for you either…

There are two reasons why it isn’t good enough. The first is because you might have a lot of data that is on external drives which doesn’t get backed up this way. If you count your video files in terabytes instead of gigabytes, backing this stuff up isn’t easy. Sure, you could duplicate your drives and leave a copy at your parents house, but it turns out that this isn’t particularly reliable.

This brings us to the second reason: hard drives aren’t an archival storage solution. They might be good for ten to twenty years, but that is assuming you have them stored in a climate controlled room and maintain them properly by taking them out and spinning up the drive once a year. Even then, the magnetic properties of the drive will inevitably decay over time, resulting in small errors which might go unnoticed, but might just as easily corrupt important files. A decade might seem like a long time, but imagine you are going back to listen to an interview you conducted for you Ph.D. research and discover that the file is corrupted? Wouldn’t you prefer to have those files stored on something a little more durable?

So how do you go about storing large amounts of data without loosing sleep over the rate of magnetic decay?

The best solution for long-term storage is to carve your data on a rock. Unfortunately, carving all those ones and zeros might take a bit of time, but you can do a little better by investing in a Blu-ray M-Disc burner. When properly stored, data stored on an M-Disc should last at least one thousand years! That’s because it is essentially the same as carving it on a rock:

While the exact properties of M-DISC are a trade secret, the patents protecting the M-DISC technology assert that the data layer is a “glassy carbon” and that the material is substantially inert to oxidation and has a melting point between 200° and 1000 °C.

M-Discs burners and media are relatively inexpensive, but they currently only run in gigabytes, not terabytes, and the recording process is slow, so you aren’t going to be using M-Discs to backup your video archive.

The option I chose was to use the technology that is standard in many large corporations: tape drives. mLogic makes a Thunderbolt LTO-6 drive which works with relatively high capacity tapes. These tapes are cheaper and longer lasting than hard drives (I’ve read that they can last around 25 to 30 years). But I can’t say I’m happy with them. The first problem is that the longevity of tapes ignores the fact that the technology is constantly being upgraded and each new generation of tape drives will only work with x number of previous generations. That means that eventually you may not be able to find a machine which can read your tapes. The second problem is the software. LTO drives like mLogic advertise that they work just like desktop drives in LTFS mode, but my experience was that it was nearly impossible to make reliable backups of large amounts of data in LTFS mode. Instead I found specialized backup software which uses its own proprietary compression techniques. This software is expensive and difficult to use. Since we have a system going, I don’t mind using tapes for now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t have a full-time IT department running backups for you.

So what’s left? Jon Jacobi has a pretty good rundown of the options in an article from PC Magazine earlier this year. Besides the ones I’ve listed above he also mentions using various online backup services, but points out the problems:

… there are drawbacks. First off, though the means of delivery may seem magical and your data is often referred to as being safely stored “in the cloud,” in reality, it’s stored on someone else’s hard drives or other media. It’s as safe as a given service has made it.

Then there’s the ongoing cost in the form of monthly fees, and in some cases transfer charges. Also, speed and availability are limited by your online connection (DSL often has very slow upload speeds) and when your service is down, your archive is unavailable. There are also privacy and security concerns. I consider these trivial, but just FYI—the NSA had a hand in funding just about every open-source encryption project out there.

So what does he recommend in the end? Surprisingly enough, hard drives. But he recommends maintaining them regularly by recopying the data every year. It sounds like a pain, but it actually might be easier than the tape backup solution I have.

Finally, there are two other points he makes in his article which I think are worth mentioning:

  • First, “Stay away from proprietary file formats if possible.” PDFs might still be readable in a few decades, but other formats are likely to be phased out.
  • And second, “Don’t use encryption except for truly sensitive data. Passwords can be lost or forgotten. Remember we’re talking long haul here.”

I’ve mostly been talking about our own needs as researchers, but we might also want to keep in mind the needs of future data archaeologists. If you archive in a way that will work for them, it will likely work for you as well!

July 12 2016

Getting from Pudong to Hongqiao

June 13 2016

Explaining Israel to Taiwanese
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