Posts tagged “embedded”

Joe’s War Story: Clean Break

Joe Moran is a product research scientist at Cogito Corporation in Boston, a startup using AI to decode emotion from voice.

Working as an applied cognitive scientist, I was in the field at Fort Bragg, NC, embedded with an airborne military unit. Our group was tasked with learning about typical soldier maneuvers and the surrounding culture. A few of us (along with a couple of ex-Army handlers) had been invited to watch a “movement-to-contact” drill. This is where a single squad marches to an agreed-upon point, followed by a simulated firefight. I thought this was to be a straightforward observation; it turned out to be a learning experience punctuated by hubris, initiation, and a broken bone.

I had failed to realise what “movement-to-contact” really meant. Assuming we would be safe behind glass surveying a sanitised battlefield, I was wearing a thin jacket, jeans, and decidedly flimsy sneakers. We arrived at the agreed upon start point, and I quickly realised that we were in for a full-on march through woods with no trails (and since it was winter, the ground was muddy and slippery). Nevertheless, I was in reasonably good shape, and confident that I could keep up. After all, how hard it could be to walk and observe at the same time?

I strode off to follow the soldiers. The squad realised we were in tow, and decided to set a pretty quick pace to show us where we belonged; while the officers had brought us in, the rank and file didn’t seem to have much need for us. No matter, we were not weighed down by heavy gear, and we could keep up, even if it meant breaking into a jog every now and then. As we marched along, I managed to get some great photographs of the soldiers in action. After a while, we came upon a small ravine, eight feet wide, with the side nearest us having two ledges that each descended about four feet. The soldiers marched right across, and we soon followed. I stepped down off the first ledge, directly into soft ground and slid down on my butt those four feet. I got right up, and dusted myself off, wiping my hands on my jacket. I looked down and saw my left little finger pointed about 20 degrees off to the left. It was clearly dislocated, and I was clearly past “observation.”

At this point, every fibre in my British being was telling me to keep calm and carry on, ‘tis just a flesh wound. I covered the offending appendage in a coat sleeve and thrust out my other hand for a lift up and out of the ravine. I continued on the march, but soon it was clear this situation was untenable. Either I could continue protecting my darkening finger from catching against anything unruly and risk breaking it, or I could call for help, bring the whole exercise to a crashing halt, and end up branded as the scientist who ruined the researchers’ privileges during our very first observation.

I decided to flag down one of our handlers, who had been a medic. He gave me the classic “Look away, this is going to hurt me more than it does you!”, snapped it back into place, taped it up, and I continued with the observation. I was able to observe the rest of the movement-to-contact, and learned a lot about how this group works.

But this was only day one of a planned five-day trip! If I went to the Army medic, I risked being sent home and unable to complete the research. When I showed the unit commander my injury, he winced, laughed, and gave a broad smile welcoming me to the unit. By seeking treatment in a way that did not impact the mission, I gained the trust of the commander, and our group was invited back for many subsequent observations, leading to lots of fruitful observations about all aspects of the unit’s work.

I got an X-ray when I got home and unfortunately my finger was worse than merely dislocated: there was a clean break through the proximal phalange. Next time I showed up to Bragg, my finger was in a cast after surgery, and the soldiers got a good laugh at the return of “that guy”. From this experience I learned to (a) prepare for the unexpected, (b) not be be headstrong and charge in when I’m not prepared, and (c) improvise quickly when thing do not go to plan!

Contextual research from a bygone era

While listening to This American Life I learned about Roger Barker, a psych professor who turned the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa into a laboratory in the late 1940s.

Barker was one of the most extraordinary — and least known — figures in the history of psychology. Shortly after he became chair of the KU psychology department in the late 1940s, he relocated his family to Oskaloosa to observe and gather data about the residents who lived in the town, population 725.

At that time, psychological research was primarily done in laboratories. “It was the era of running rats through mazes to understand human behavior,” he said. “Barker said you won’t learn about any real human behavior in a laboratory. If psychologists want to understand human behavior in the real world, they must enter the real world.”

More from this article

Among Barker’s more unusual efforts was a 1951 paper he co-wrote under the title “One Boy’s Day.”

It chronicled 14 hours in the life of a local boy with the pseudonym Raymond Birch . He was 7 when Raymond’s parents allowed the Midwest Psychological Field Station to record his every movement, according to Sabar’s book:

7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, ‘Raymond, wake up. …’
7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tugging and pulling it on his left foot. …
7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg for his dog.

The notations, archived at KU, track Raymond on his walk to school. He finds a baseball bat in the grass and swings it, accidentally striking a flagpole.

“This made a wonderful, hollow noise,” researchers wrote, “so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.”

Barker eschewed academic prose and wanted his charges to record any telling, prosaic detail.

Through the 1950s, Oskaloosans grew accustomed to the sight of a child being shadowed by a note-scribbling adult. In published papers, this was the town of “Midwest,” in keeping with the scientific practice of shielding the identity of the subjects being examined.

Barker’s work differed from other scholarly studies of places such as Muncie, Ind., (Middletown) and Candor, N.Y., (Springdale) in at least two ways.

First, it focused less on class and politics and more on the relationships that made kids feel comfortable.

Second, Barker’s family settled into Oskaloosa as a permanent home. Roger and Louise continued to live there until their deaths, Roger’s in 1990 at age 87 and Louise’s in 2009 at 102.

While Barker used many methods, the part that struck me was his belief that simply documenting in exhaustive detail the ordinary activities throughout the day would somehow provide some additional insight. What would Barker have made of today’s era of personal analytics, data smog, quantified self and beyond?


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