Pop Culture: Incongruously Played Songs

A year or two ago, I spent the summer trying in vain to be linguistically immersed in one language (Kazakh) in Almaty, a large multi-lingual city (Russian, English, Kazakh, Uzbek…). As I filled out Kazakh worksheets late at night, male voices rumbled in the garden below. Someone in a lower apartment turned on their mp3 player and opened the window.


“This is my fate… oh-oh-oh-oh… I’m yours… don’t hesitate…” I catch Jason Mraz singing deep into the Kazakh night.

I decide to add this to an ongoing list of other American songs playing at surprising times on the airwaves in Central Asia:


ra-ra-rasputin, russia’s greatest love machine…

At a wedding, and again during a tour of holy Muslim sites in Sairan, southern Kazakhstan:


by the rivers of babylon, I lay me down…

In a taxi swerving down the streets of Almaty. See also, the beautiful movie about Kazakhstan, Tulpan:


lo-lo-love you like a love song baby…

At every fricking shopping mall in Astana, circa 2012. My local friend hates it because it has no ‘deep meaning’; I may have played it on repeat just because it’s bouncy:


and I think to myself, what a wonderful world, yes I think to myself…

Late night out the window, after discussing the Soviet famine in Kazahkstan, with my host mother’s brother’s uncle:


I’m so two thousand eight, you so two thousand late…

Walking around central Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and stepping around a bouncy-castle in the street near the theatre. It was 2009, so a timely message:


On Library Ethnography

Here are the slides from my webinar today for the New Professionals group (@npsig) at IFLA:

In this presentation I highlight the benefits of ethnographic methods for understanding what users actually want and do in the library, some of the research projects I’ve been working on in Kazakhstan, and the more interesting results of ethnographic library studies.

Audio for my presentation (and the even more amazing presentation by Hugh Rundle) should be up at the NPSIG blog in a week or so!

On Academic Questions

Some thoughts I’ve been meaning to post since returning from my most recent conference:

question-mark by geralt on pixabay

… so the thing I love about academics is how they ask questions. Most people will say:

“I don’t understand,” or
“That’s bullshit,” or

“Uh. Hm. What the hell are altmetrics?”

All of which are valid statements. Academics, on the other hand, will enter into a public discussion by raising their hand and saying,

“J. Holland here, from the communications department at Rutgers University. Now you’ve described altmetrics as something implicated in the flow of modern information channels, but my own research is on missing information as systemic of broader societal shifts in child protection enforcement, and I’m wondering if you can outline for us here how this type of missing information fits into the picture of altmetrics? For instance, does altmetrics take into account invisible as well as nontraditional metrics of progress in judging academic reputation?”

And then the poor junior guy up on the stage who has just finished his presentation stutters a bit, and has to respond to this completely bullshit and self-bragging question in some way, so he says something about how altmetrics certainly could encompass the Emperor and His Very Lovely and Completely Evident but Invisible New Clothes, but that’s really outside of the scope of his research at this point. (Or, if the guy up on stage is a Senior Speaker, he just ignores the impertinent question to continue to talk about himself and his Clothes).

All of this makes the Questioner look brilliant (if kind of dickish) and the Guy on Stage look moderate (if kind of insufficient) but everyone has got to announce themselves and their research. This state of pride-equilibrium then persists for a whole 3 seconds until the audience is distracted by another lengthy and ponderous question related to the new questioner’s most recent research, and not to the advertised topic of the panel. And so on.

After a long enough question period, however, there’s a sort of balance as everyone is given time to speak (in accordance with their Importance) and then the moderator raises his hands and go on to the next panel. Where the cycle repeats. And repeats. And repeats. 

#academia #iconf14

Zara: “I brought home love”

Low in a cardboard box in the entryway, Yucca shoves himself into the corner of his cage. Before him, fine hands scatter chopped lettuce (a precious commodity, here) and fill a dim platter with water.

Stepping back from the turtle, Zara returns to her perch by the kitchen table. Crouching on a small chair, she flicks though her iPad, browsing American crime shows dubbed into Russian, K-Pop videos, infant beauty contests from South Korea.

She nibbles at wasabi crackers and tea.


“Chai popyom!” she calls out. Its time to drink tea. I extricate myself from my computer. Slowly.

“Look!” Zara smiles when I enter the kitchen. “Popugaichiki! Do you want them?”

I look over her shoulder at the small parrots in the picture. “Will they be noisy?”

“No, very quiet.” She assures me. “They sleep.”

“Maybe we should call Olya and ask what she wants?” I say.

Zara reaches for her phone and calls the owners here in Astana, as I scan the facebook advertisement. She acts quickly, gathering her coat and furred hat.


Later in the evening, she comes back carrying a wire cage, draped in our green blanket.

“Look!” She says. Two small blue budgies cock their heads and fluff their feathers, shaking nervously. They’re pale, like powder paint, with dark blue fletches around their white feathered necks.

“How much?” I ask. “How old?”

Zara shakes her head; she doesn’t know; she didn’t pay anything, as the owners were leaving the city.

“Let’s call them In and Yan!” She proposes.

“In and yan?”

In response, she makes the sign of a Yin-Yang. I shake my head, looking at the blue birds, and we scan the internet for words: Cornflower, Baby Blue, Royal Blue.

We name them Azure and Indigo. Zara writes it down on a napkin, her manicured nails. She tells me the budgerigars are a boy and a girl; the cage contains a box for nesting.


In a home musty around the edges, Zara shies away from anger, and warms like sunflowers to love. Olya and I fight; wide-eyed, Zara wants life to be in harmony.

Late in the evening, she keeps asking me for some green bottle, in Russian. Impatient, I turn away.

“I found it!” she calls. As she bends down again, I look into the hall. She’s spritzing each green tropical plant, the turtle’s box, the birds in their cage, all her gathered creatures, her face shining with delight.

“They’re kissing!” Zara calls as I prepare for bed. I bound out of my room. “Well, they were kissing each other.”

I nod. “These are called lovebirds in Turkish,” I say, checking it on my mobile. “Mahebbetkusi.”

We say goodnight as I walk back into my room.

“I tell you, I brought home love!” Zara tells me with a smile. “Ya govoryu, ya prinesla domoi lyubov.”

Astana in Motion: Easy Wiggle GIFs in Photoshop

I often snap a bunch of similar shots when out taking pictures, and although usually I delete the duplicates, sometimes I catch a nice effect when flipping through the pictures quickly:

Ishim River

Winter along the Ishim Winter, Astana

I’m sure you’ve seen it, but ‘wiggle GIFs’ create a sort of vibrating stereoscopic effect by combining two or more pictures into one image. Having skimmed a bunch of internet tutorials to figure this out, I’ve finally sorted how to make my own GIFs. If you prefer videos, I recommend this one on Vimeo; if you like text (like I do), check my summary below. This is for Adobe Photoshop CS6/Windows; if you haven’t got that, just look around online for a free GIF maker!

Making Wiggle GIFs

1) Open photoshop. Go to menu File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack (more…)

Kazakh Proverbs for Your Wedding: Equals With Equals, Cow-Patties with Carrying-Sacks

It’s a muggy day in July when my Kazakh teacher, Aryslan, promises that I’ll have a free day tomorrow — he needs to go home to his village and prepare for his brother’s wedding.

Small spread of food at a Kazakh house

Toidyn bolganynan, boladysy qyzyq,” he says. Everything that happens at a wedding is interesting: the party (“toi”) always involves disputes, things missing, excitement, and surprises. But it’s a lot of work, he tells us: “Maybe the ceremony is only five hours, but the preparations take a month!”

When I ask for more, he starts listing proverbs that a visitor to Kazakhstan should know, especially if they’re invited to a celebration of any sort:

“If you go to a feast, go full!”   Toiga barsan, toyip bar!

I nod and laugh. I’ve just been to a Kazakh wedding that was at least eight hours long, and that was after a significant delay. Aryslan smiles. “Kazakh weddings always start late,” he says, “and that’s why you should go full.” The guests will eat all night long, but you may need to wait several hours before the feast actually begins.

Aryslan comments that his Korean and American students never give wishes (tilek aitu) as Kazakhs do. We say a quick “congrats.” Kazakhs and Russians give rounds of well-wishes, as rows of people are called up to give their speeches and toasts.

“No expenses, no profit.”   Shygyn shyqpai, kiris bolmai.

If you don’t put out all the stops, you won’t get back in profit. “The Kazakh wedding isn’t for the family,” Arsylan says. “It’s for the guests.”

“But what do you get back?” I ask.

“Gifts and presents. Or they invite you to their wedding,” he says. I laugh and show him a website: that’s exactly what the American anthropologist Cynthia Werner said after studying Kazakh weddings twenty years ago: even when money was scarce, people used weddings as a way to circulate gifts and help each other out.

If you couldn’t pay for gifts or help out at weddings, the anthropologist said, you wouldn’t get invited to as many feasts in the future. Help was repaid with help. Those who couldn’t afford it were left out.

Aryslan nods, unsurprised. “A lot depends on money,” he nods, adding:

“If rich people are in-laws to rich people, a camel walks between them.”   Bai men bai quda bolsa, arasynda tuie juredi.

Aryslan explains that wealthy Kazakh families give elaborate wedding gifts to each other. Poor people have to give lesser gifts. And because of this,

“Equals with equals, cow-patties with carrying-sacks.”   Teng tenimen, tezek qabymen.

The implication is that it’s not good to marry too far above or below oneself.

I frown. “Cow patties?”

It turns out that Kazakh nomads once (more…)

At the Frozen Lake: Borovoye

A few friends have gone to Borovoye for the holiday this week. Just realized I never posted my last trip, so setting it here for you!

On the Train

It’s a frosty-paned holiday weekend, but I start reading another obscure academic article. A curve in the track throws me against Anne’s padded elbow, as I read an article about how orthodox priests direct almsgiving in post-Soviet Russia.

“S Prazdnikom, Vos’mova Marta!” a husky voice cries out at the far end of the rail carriage.

When I look up, an old Russian woman is by the carriage door. Slowly treading past the rows of holidaying passengers, she adjusts a gray woolen scarf wrapped tightly around her face.

“She wants money?” The German businessman dozing beside me stirs, raising his eyebrows. His heavy-curved Ukrainian companion just keeps reading her novel. “It’s a woman,” the guy adds, squinting, “and old.”

Our train carriage is spacious but full, families pressed three bodies to a seat with packages of onions and clothing beneath their feet. The car grows quiet as the woman moves slowly along it with a cane, showing missing teeth as she repeats her holiday greetings. How did she get on the train? (more…)

Cultures, values, and roles in the workplace

I’ve been taking a course on knowledge management this term, and find the concept of workplace culture intriguing: what do we attend do? what does a leader value and promote? how do leaders and followers, colleagues and loners, interact together to create organizational culture?

And even more than before, I appreciate the opportunity that working across cultures and domains has afforded me to better understand human interactions. Below I draw on my time in grad school, my managers over years and years, and my time volunteering and working in various libraries and academic institutions. Rather than describe specific situations, let me go over some general ‘feelings’ I have for some group-constructed values and implicit beliefs. Stereotypes happen, but correct me if I’m egregiously wrong here!

The Grad Student

Learning is paramount. Learning new things and making connections, especially in writing or in presentations, is more important than anything else. Languages and cultural interaction, historical knowledge, and ability to analyze or criticize is vital. Others have the right to ask for a portion of my time, but really need to leave me with plenty of time to engage in thinking, scholarship, and research. I have quirky habits, like knitting or skulls or painting or stamping, and engage of a mixture of all things intellectual. Nobody can tell me what to do – but if I play my cards just right, I can get a T-T job and be a researcher forever.

Top Chef Masters

The Western Librarian

Organizing things and making that order attractive is very important. Everything should be kept in order, with the most important things flagged to catch people’s attention. People should seek me out, and not other information sources, if they want help with something. I know the internet. And cool tech stuff. And books. I should also know about every area of knowledge relevant to my people. It’s important to get books that are both fun and useful, but support my values. Minority communities, award winners (good books) and internationalism should be highlighted alongside popular books. There’s never enough money or people, so however I can get this library running is good enough. No one should censor books (unless I decide to). I should be allowed the freedom to work with and organize objects, as well as develop my professional skills, sometimes for long periods of time. I should help people find the things they want and fulfil their own selves through my library.

The Soviet-Era Librarian

Books are important. They are sacred objects and should (more…)

Matheo: “Berlin is for partying, not for reading books in a hostel”

Flower Crazy

“You want to be a writer? Schopenhauer said that you must not seek to be the most famous artist, you must just become the best that you can be. To draw the sound of flowers,” Mathéo says, clenching his fist passionately.

Then he leans back, howling in French at how good the steak is at Maredo, and asks for the bill in German.

I’ve just admitted that I once wanted to be a writer, but I’m just in Berlin for a library conference. When I arrived on Sunday evening, the hostel room was empty, fresh white sheets folded and tossed on five bunkbeds. I slipped into the room, closed the chilly window, opened the curtains. Made up a bed and shoved my suitcase under it. Slipped down into the lobby and out into the city.

Writing, George Orwell says, should be a pane of glass, yourself crystallized so that some part of the world can flow through. It’s more than just sharing your desires and hopes and fears; it’s about remaining engaged, but moving aside so that what is can be seen.

Or, as old Pastor Danny used to say it: the Holy Spirit is like water and people are like a garden hose. Everyone gets thirsty, and sometimes you can help others find a drink. But don’t dwell on yourself too much – “you get out in the hot sunshine, and no one wants a big drink of water that tastes like hose!”

Bicycle Streetside
Monday, I have a free day. I walk a meandering 8 hours, up Oranienburgerstrasse to the charity shops and empty yards and small public parks in Wedding, along the train-station overpass at Osloer strasse, then back down to Mitte through the prepster yoga and bio ice cream neighborhoods. I speak just enough German to confuse the man at the doner shop, and (regretfully) see a beautiful fox coat but don’t try it on.

When I get back to the room in the evening, a mostly naked blond man is there, in his underpants.

I turn away, but he greets me enthusiastically.

I look back at him. Mr. Underpants is still unclothed, but runs up to shake my hand.

“My name is Mathéo*!” he says, “And I am French. I’m here on holiday.”

“I’m here for a conference.” I say, still reserved. “I’m American. A librarian in Kazakhstan.”

“Really?” he howls in laughter at this, doubling over. “A librarian in Kazakhstan?”

“The border guards in America don’t (more…)

How to Be a Good Manager

(First drafted March 2013). So my first embryonic manager experience was not my strong point. Working on a research team in Mongolia, I was suddenly set in charge of two feisty local girls while our leaders were out of the country on side trips.

Click here for one contested interaction with the two: story.

Hmm. Those two were a disaster, but I also wasn’t at all effective in leading them. I’ve come a long way, but even now (March 2013), I’m still working to be a better manager. Some key targets for me at the moment are managing my own priorities, communicating tasks more clearly, managing my workload stress so that I don’t let it out on my employees, being more confident about my vision, and keeping both myself and them directed and productive.

Good goals, at any rate.

Embassy New Zealand, on Flickr

I’m still not sure I can formally put into words what I’m learning about management at Bilim-Tilim school — it’s early yet — but I can make some notes on how to be a good manager, given my memories of earlier times when I was a non-manager looking upwards:

Stand up for your employees. My favorite memory of working at a call center, ironically, was when a phone customer started cursing and viscerally threatening one of our workers for not having a cheaper hotel room on offer. Our manager, Dan, stood up, took over the phone line, and confronted the customer. “You are never to talk to my employees that way again,” he said into his headset, chewing the man out at high volume and angrily blacklisting him from all our chain’s properties. I’ve never seen anything like this since, but it gave all of us a great sense of security in working for this manager.

Fire when the firing needs done. At the drugstore, Valerie spent every shift in (more…)

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