During some moment in my first few years here at UL, I noted that I had seen the building’s cleaning crew playing cards in the faculty lounge after hours, and I wondered what game they were playing. A few days later I found a note in my mailbox from Phil Gooding, one of our folklore students at the time:

Phil Gooding's Note

Phil Gooding’s Note

Icon Resources

I’m still thinking about creating an iOS app for field researchers. If I do, then I definitely want it to have a decent-looking icon. [Icon Resources]( offers a series of tutorials and materials that are useful — and the designer behind them has nice taste.

Field Recording with an iOS Device

Much like smartphones have displaced the consumer point-and-shoot market, I think the same devices have the potential to displace the consumer audio device market. The potential here being any interest in the manufacturers in delivering a reasonably good audio experience. There has been some competition over the past five years that has raised the floor for camera lenses and image resolutions, but I am less certain that there has been, or ever will be, a concomitant concern for audio recording. The market, from what I can tell, just isn’t large enough. Better audio playback, sure. Better audio capture, I am not so sure.

That noted, one of the things that popped into my head about six months to a year ago and has refused to pop back out again is the idea of a field recording application for my iPhone that would allow me to have the same kind of flexibility as


  • FiRe 2 – Field Recorder ($6)
  • Pro Audio To Go ($30)

In terms of hardware devices:

  • Tascam IXZ Mic and Guitar Interface ixz
  • Tascam iM2 Channel Portable Digital Recorder


  • TASCAM TMST1 Condenser Microphone (mini-stereo)
  • Blue Microphones Mikey 2.0 iPod Recording Microphone (30-pin)

Second Thoughts on Notebooks

My trial of the Whitelines notebook was short-lived. I had forgotten its one great limitation, which many may find a feature and not a bug: the spine is not designed to lie flat. The image above pretty much tells the story. In the middle is the Moleskine I use for fieldwork; on the bottom is the Whitelines. Great notebook. Great paper. But it doesn’t lie flat, no matter how much you flip through the thing and press down on the open pages in an attempt to get the spine to “break” a little. (Oh, the simultaneous shudder of bibliophiles everywhere as those words were writ.)

Listen to This

Every folklorist I know should listen to the Radio Lab short podcast entitled “Loop the Loop” which tells the story of Lincoln Beachey, a daredevil pilot who established many of the genres of air show acrobatics. More importantly, he is all but forgotten to history, except for his presence in a jump rope rhyme:

Lincoln Beachey had a little dream
To go up to Heaven in a flying machine
The machine broke down and down he fell
He thought he’d go to Heaven but he went to…

As is often the case, Radio Lab does good work here. If this podcast excited you, then you should also listen to their podcast on Tic-Tac-Toe where they first sent listeners to ask for the game by that name, and got few results, but when they sent listeners out to demonstrate the game, they found it was quite common. I plan to use this with my field research class as an example of being careful how you ask a question. (There’s a lot more to unpack there, but I think most of my folklore colleagues will get it.)

By the way, RadioLab people, if you are reading this, then you don’t always get it right. Your hosts completely blew it in the episode on talking to machines when they belittled the computer scientists for staying inside too much and not knowing enough about the “real world.” Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the pot calling the kettle black when you have your show narrated by two guys sitting in a  sound booth. That is, we all have our moments when we spend too much time inside — be it rooms or just our heads — and when we need to get outside, whatever that outside may be.

The Pain of Ethnography

I occasionally field questions from my colleagues about what it is I do when I am “out in the field,” a question which is sometimes accompanied by something like a wave in the general direction of “out there.” I don’t really mind the question: it, and its presumptions, are really based on the fact that the paradigm within which I work sometimes contrasts sharply from the paradigm within which they work.

When I am engaged in ethnographic research, I am building my data from scratch. It does not exist as texts already in books, nor as texts readily collected. It exists only as a set of discrete experiences which I detail in field notes and in the accumulation of experiences into something like knowledge based on patterns and designs gleaned from those experiences. As most of my fieldworker colleagues know, accumulating experience is the key, and trying to do so while also teaching, and being a member of a functioning family, is tricky to say the least. The work proceeds slowly.

And so I am delighted when I have been in the field long enough that the individuals with whom I work, well, put me to work. That is, they assume that I am competent, and they ask me to do something, for example, swap hydraulic lines on a crawfish boat.

On Thursday afternoon, Gerard Olinger asked me to grab a pair of wrenches — he assumed I could find them but he also gave me the sizes, knowing that I would not know, nor be able to judge, what sizes were required — and swap a pair of hydraulic lines on a cylinder we had, together, moved. Asking me to do the work freed him up to do a few other things — he can do many things in the time it takes me to do one — and it also put me in a familiar spot: underneath the bench of a crawfish boat, a space I have spent some time previously in his shop. (Gerard has had me do some basic nuts and bold work before.)

Gerard’s son Paul had put the lines in, I believe, and Paul has a good fifty pounds and considerably more muscle on me. I had to really lean on the pair of wrenches to get the lines loose. When a fitting finally gave, it gave quickly and the back of my right thumb met the underside of the bench:

Ethnographic Injury # 213 (or thereabouts)

And that’s after three days of antibiotic cream and large, home-made dressings. The infection was worse than I thought: I figured the wound would have remained fairly sterile since in the moment it occurred a fairly large amount of hydraulic fluid came out of the newly-freed hose end. Apparently hydraulic oil is not sterile. (Note to self.)

Sketching Ethnography

When I teach a fieldwork class or work with students doing fieldwork, I like to take some time, when the moment of fieldwork photography comes up, to talk about shot composition. It’s not something most students are prepared to discuss, in part, because composition in photography seems to many to be the realm of the fine art or professional photographer. It doesn’t help that many people think of composition in purely two-dimensional terms and thus have some sense that they can fix a problematic image in processing.

But that’s confusing cropping with composition. And while cropping can do wonders sometimes it cannot get into a frame something that was needlessly left out and now can never be put back in — there are too many pieces of reality even for Photoshop masters.

A recent [iStockphoto]( article on [“The Sketch”]( got me thinking about better ways to communicate some of these ideas. I am particularly fond of the illustration the author offers.

His task is to compose an image that captures the idea of waiting, and while we can envy him his opportunity to work with a model and location that are pliant to his needs, we should also envy him his forethought. It’s my experience that too many folklorists, and and anthropologists and journalists, simply start snapping shots in the middle of an event without any real thought of what is happening and how best to represent it. Only then can you decide what are probably the best vantage points from which to take a photograph.

No doubt seasoned veterans like Henry Glassie, an amazing photographer in his own right, do much of this work quite subconsciously, but it’s not because he hasn’t thought about it quite consciously for years and years. I know because I have spent time talking to Glassie about his photographs and I have had him with me in the field and had him advise him on better angles, better frames, better lighting.

To move this discussion along, I plan to offer up a few photographs of my own that I have either composed in this way or I have not and wish I did. I hope others will join me in a critique of this part of the ethnographic process. I don’t think we lose anything by raising to the level of conscious practice and articulate discussion certain dimensions of our craft. If anything, we enjoy amazing content and it’s time we thought about the forms in which we present it or represent it more clearly. We now have more choices, in terms of communication, than any of us thought imaginable even ten short years ago.

iPhone Geotagging Applications

One of the reasons why I picked up an iPhone 3GS was for its GPS functionality.[^1] I had been thinking about getting a separate GPS unit, and in fact had asked for one Christmas 2008, but it turns out the delay worked to my benefit. At this point in time, I don’t want turn-by-turn directions, all I want is to be able to note my location coordinates and then tag my notes and my photographs with that information so that future researchers will have that information available to them.

However, getting those coordinates from somewhere on my phone to all those images is not as easy as it should be. This may have something to do, from what I can tell, with the iPhone’s SDK, which up until now has made it hard for apps to save data in a place or in a form that could be used elsewhere. This may all change with the iPad, which obviously needs to make something like a file system available to apps for storage of information. (Again, I could be talking out of my hat here — it’s a lovely IU baseball cap, and so I look quite good talking out of it.)

I have downloaded a few GPS apps, but none of them have done what I want. “Geo logging” wasn’t quite the right search. I should have been using “geotagging.” (It’s often one word these days.) And so I have turned up a number of applications that promise to make this pretty effortless:

* [GeoTag for iPhone]( is inexpensive at $1.99 and offers to track your location for you. You then use a desktop application to tag your photos.
* [GeoLogTag]( is more expensive at $4.99 but it doesn’t require that you install any software on your Mac. Instead, you connect your phone to your wireless network and then tell GeoLogTag to tag your photos. (How exactly this works isn’t clear.)

Frustratingly neither of these apps, and a few others at which I looked, mentions specific use cases with [Lightroom]( They mention iPhoto, Aperture, and Flickr, but not Lightroom.

All these apps also discuss tagging your photos within a given time window — five minutes or such. Since I tend to be at a given location to document something, I would prefer to capture that data, manually even, and then be able to drag and drop it onto a given set of images — rather like one tags with keywords in both iPhoto and Lightroom. Both of these apps, and others, assume a kind of automation which is very nice but doesn’t exactly fit with my own workflow.

[^1]: That makes for a total of 3 radios in the iPhone: cellular, wireless ethernet, and GPS.

A New Notebook

As most people know, I have used and depended upon the large Moleskine notebooks for the past five years. I take them to work — into committee meetings, into the classroom, into my office — and I take them home. I have taken them out into the field, and I have taken them on both business trips and pleasure trips. Everything goes into them. And when you depend upon such a one thing, like a good pen, you don’t lose it.


A collection of Moleskine notebooks on a shelf in my study.

What's In My Gear Bag 3

A photograph taken for my recent post on field gearthat emphasizes the place of a notebook in the category of “necessary gear.”

At this point in collection of habits and practices, I have just about stopped thinking about what notebook I use. It’s going to be a Moleskine with graph paper. (I am not so good at drawing that I work that well without the aid of lines, and lots of them.)

Still, a lot of lines can crowd the page, and so when I came across someone crowing the benefits of using a new line of notebooks from Sweden called Whitelines, I was suspicious that it was yet another [Lifehacker][lh] or [43folders][43f] fan spending more time fussing with the tools of the trade than in the actual practice of trading — whatever that trade may be.[^1]

Whitelines Notebook Comparison

Whitelines Comparison

Color me surprised — excuse the pun. Not only are the pages more readable but the notebooks themselves are *cheaper* than Moleskines *and* they come in the standard European sizes[^2] *and* the company is committed to having a zero carbon footprint.

The full line of notebooks is available on [Amazon][]. I use the [A5 sized hardbound notebook][A5].

[^1]: Okay, true confession, I will almost always take the time it requires to waste to try using any kind of paper with [Seyès Ruling](
[^2]: May I just take a moment to ask why hasn’t North America moved to such international standards as, say, the metric system and the sensible paper standards like A3, A4, A5 *et cetera*?


What’s In My Gear Bag

I may have started out life as an English (and philosophy — dual!) major, which should reveal a real preference for books over people, but what I love is fieldwork. In any given week, what gets me through other days is the knowledge that by the end of the week I will have spent a day, perhaps two, doing fieldwork. Sometimes that fieldwork might be nothing more than “windshield surveying” as Fred Kniffen once termed it. Other days I might get invited to spend some [time in a rice bin][bin]. It doesn’t matter. I’m out in the world, getting my boots muddy, as Ray Cashman likes to call it.

I am regularly approached by students and faculty at UL-Lafayette who are interested in doing some sort of qualitative work, and, because technology seems like magic, they always start with what kind of gear I carry. I’ll start there, but over the course of the next few posts, I want to explain a little how I approach fieldwork and thus why I use the equipment I do and why I use it the way I do. As you will learn in a moment, my equipment is not the best there is, but the way I use it regularly produces pretty solid results, and that’s what we’re after isn’t it? A solid documentary record for people who otherwise potentially exist only as abstractions.

Here’s the gear I carry on a regular basis:

The DSLR body I use is the [Canon EOS 450D][450] (also known as the Rebel XSi). I was using a 350D before, but moved up to the 450D because I wanted to standardize around SD cards for my equipment and the 450D makes it easier to change things like the ISO and it has a bigger LCD on the back to double-check your shot.

My Basic Camera Setup

My main lens is a [Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS][1785] (see figure above). It doesn’t open up quite as wide as the Sigma 24-70mm EX DG I had been using, but it gives me a bit more zoom on both ends of the spectrum and it has a faster, quieter focus as well as image stabilization.

I have two alternate lenses that I carry with me: one is Canon’s “plastic fantastic” 50mm f1.8 lens which lets me shoot inside dark metal shops at ISO 800 and still get remarkably clear shots. If a main door is open, sometimes I can shoot at 400 or, with a steady hand, stop the camera down enough to get a workable depth of field.


I have also just picked up, as a Christmas present, a [Canon EF-S 55-250mm f.4-5.6 IS lens][50250] (see figure above) for shooting my daughter’s various events and that I have begun to try using to photograph farmer’s at work in the field and to do some nature photography — see below. The 50mm lens is always in the bag, but sometimes the zoom stays at home.

A Killdeer Lands in a Rice Field

Always in the bag is a [Moleskine notebook with grid pages][moleskine] — I am in no way a steady hand when drawing a line or drawing to scale and so I need all the guidance I can get. The Moleskines are really a good size for fieldwork and they have proven themselves able to withstand the kind of abuse I dish out.


Also always in the bag are ear plugs — I work in metal shops, cough drops — because nothing is worse than listening to your own cough when trying to transcribe a recording, spare pencils, lens cleaning materials, and a tape measure.

When I know I am going to be interviewing somone, I drop an [Edirol R-09][r09] in the bag with me. Like the Canon, it records everything to an SD card — and, an added bonus, it uses AA batteries. (My backup camera is a point and shoot, a Canon A590, which also records to an SD card and uses AA batteries.)

*My thanks to Henry Glassie for showing me the poor man’s version of the disappearing photographic background.*


The View from Inside a Rice Bin

I was lucky enough to be invited by Dwayne Gossen to watch him and his son unloading rice. While a series of augurs swept the rice from inside the bin up to a chute that dropped into a waiting truck, I was invited to see things from the inside of the largest grain bin I have ever seen. Here’s what things look like when you’re inside looking out:

The View from inside a Grain Bin

I love my job when I get to do things like this. These are incredible people doing incredible things: the rice on that floor could end up on our dinner table in a few months time.

Noting My GPS Location

The Compass app that comes with the iPhone 3GS does what I need it terms of giving me latitude and longitude in degrees and digits, but there’s no way to capture those coordinates except by hand. It would be nice to have an app that would let me copy and paste or at least enter a series of locations which I could then later somehow download.

Apple has some sample code for a *Locate Me* app [here](