The Hurricane Lantern Effect


This is for all your nascent researchers about to head off to remote places to engage in your very first fieldwork, and for all you eco-tourists or educational travelers about to embark on a trip through strange lands afar.

A Repost

When I was preparing to start my graduate research in Africa, I was already very experienced in fieldwork, but all of it was in the United States, and although there is cultural variation across the land even in old New England and New York, the work I was planning was at a field site in Africa originally selected precisely because of its extreme remoteness. So I needed advice.

I had three people advising me. One was a professor in my department who had done a lot of work at this site. His advise was extensive and detailed and had a lot to do with the logistics and mechanics of running the research base camp, where I and a fellow graduate student would be replacing a couple from Montana who had been living there for a year. The other was my main advisor, Glynn Isaac, who had visited this research site briefly (just long enough, apparently, to contract what would later prove to be a fatal disease). Glynn, a very experienced field archaeologist really only had one piece of practical advice for me: “You’re going to a rain forest. Better bring an umbrella.”

The third was my “co-advisor” later to become my primary, and eventually, only advisor, the primatologist Irv DeVore. DeVore had also been to this field site, and in fact, helped to set it up a few years earlier. And, he had considerable fieldwork experience, having been one of the select few who invented modern methods of fieldwork in primtalogy and what might now be called biosocial anthropology. His advice was more extensive, and turned out to be (as I was to learn would always be the case with DeVore) most valuable.

He told me about a thing he called the “Hurricane Lantern Effect.”

It is so named because of the primary, “type” exemplar of the effect. You arrive naive at a new field site to relieve experienced researchers harried and haggard from months in the field and ready to go home and with little truck for the noobie. (You are the noobie.) The first evening, you observe the daily ritual of bringing the hurricane lanterns out, cleaning them up, trimming the wicks, and filling them with paraffin.A hurricane lamp is a kerosene burning device with a shapely glass tube positioned over a cloth wick emanating from a reservoir filled with “paraffin” … the word everywhere but the U.S. for kerosene. On the Equator, where you certainly are when you observe this ritual, the sun goes down, quickly, at very close to 6:00pm, so these lamps are critical to provide you with a few hours for dining, socializing with comrades, and finishing off your notes from that day. You are not living in a Michael Creighton book, so there are no generators to run perimeter lights or to charge flashlight batteries.

As you observe this ritual, you notice that the person engaged in the task is clearly doing it wrong. The process itself … the order in which things are being done … is inefficient. The way in which the funnel is used, the kind of container used to store the paraffin, the choice of device used to trim the wicks, and so on, all can be improved. You wonder how it is that these people could have survived here a year being so stupid about something as basic as maintaining and lighting the hurricane lamps they use every day.

So this goes on for a few nights, and finally you can stand it no longer. You speak up and provide the lamp-Meister with a suggestion or two as to how to better carry out this task. At first all you get is an unintelligible grumble and you are not sure if he’s heard you. So you throw in another handy tip for good measure. Suddenly, the lamp-Meister puts down the lamp he’s working on, stands up and says:

“You know, you’re right. You obviously know what you are doing. Why don’t you finish up what I’ve started here and this can be your job from now on.”

Now, hold on a second. Most of you are thinking that the “Hurricane Lamp Effect” is where you screw up and get yourself assigned an onerous task by opening up your big mouth. But were you thinking this, you’d be wrong. It is much, much more than than. You need to bear with me on this…

So, satisfied that your suggestions were acknowledged as excellent, but a bit worried about the grumpiness induced in the now-former lamp-Meister, you dive in and take over the task. By the time you are done with the evening’s lamp maintanance, you have spilled a bit more paraffin than you had hoped, and your hands smell like petrolium product, and two of the five lamps are burning really funny and putting out a lot of smoke. But you chalk this up to nuances missed by you as a product of your inexpereince, and don’t think much about it.

The next night, when you take over lamp-duty, you get similar results, but this time you’ve spilled less paraffin. The reason you’ve spilled less paraffin is because you altered your procedure slightly in a way that avoids this waste. The next night, the lamps smoke less. Again, this is because you’ve made another change in your procedure. The next day, you drive the researchers whom you are relieving to the airport, and when you eventually return to the base camp (a couple of days later) you resume your hurricane lamp duty. This time, you get even better results because you, once gain, alter your procedure a little.

Over the next several weeks, in fact, you refine and adjust the process of maintaining the lamps, and now you are habitually not spilling a drop of paraffin or getting any on your hands. You can really appreciate this because that four day trip to and back from “town” is what it takes to get more paraffin, so you understand the value of every drop saved and the tragedy of every drop wasted. The lamps are now working so well that you only need to light them at the beginning of the evening and they stay lit and even, without smoke, for hours. One night, your camp is invaded by army ants, and you really appreciate the fact that you can sleep outdoors with a lamp burning, set at low, steadily burning all night allowing you to check periodically for invading insects. This only works because you are the man. You are the lamp-Meister.

Then one evening, after being in the field for 11 months, near the end of your hitch and ready to go home, a set of replacement researchers is dropped off by passing missionaries. You didn’t know they were coming, but you’re glad to see that the folks back home did not forget you and eventually sent replacements. These new researchers really are new … they’ve never been out of Massachusetts before. You are going to have to train them to do everything. What a pain.

So the first night with the noobs, just as your colleague is heating up dinner on the central hearth, you begin your daily ritual of lamp-maintenance. Half way through the process, which you, the lamp-Meister have perfected, one of the noobs pipes up.. with a suggestion….

You get the point.

And just to make sure let me point out the slightly less obvious side of this point: The method you’ve developed to manage the hurricane lamps, in the end, is exactly the method you originally observed and criticized. It turns out that there is a reason for every little thing that you thought was a bad idea. You just didn’t get it.

DeVore’s advice was good. When I first went to the field site, on the very first night, I observed as Jack Fisher (an archaeologist) took a bunch of hurricane lamps out of the storage shed, along with a container of paraffin. I watched as he cleaned the lamps, trimmed the wicks, filled the reservoir, and lit a couple of the lamps. I was in awe of the fact that he did not spill a drop. Yet I could see how one observing this procedure might criticize it, might have a few suggestions about how to do it better. But I also knew that Jack had been doing this every day for nearly 400 days, and I figured he had probably optimized the procedure as well as it could be. And I’m certain that the only reason I kept my trap shut is because I could hear DeVore’s voice in my head … “Keep your trap shut, young man. You’ll have a lot to learn…” and so on.

But then, when Jack left, it was up to me to become the lamp-Meister, and so I became the lamp-Meister, and I achieved this status quickly by understanding the Hurricane Lamp Effect. I trusted Jack, and while I probably did modify the procedure a little over time, I did that with the assumption that what was working was working for a reason. And, most importantly, I did not get Jack mad at me, and I did not make myself appear a total fool (regarding this one issue, at least) in the eyes a colleague who was just then in a position to form an opinion of me.

This post and this post about Tumbu Flies reminded me of the Hurricane Lamp Effect. The short version of the story is that the tumbu flies lay eggs in clothing, which hatch into larvae that crawl onto your body and dig their way into your flesh, where they grow and pupate. They may be worse than botflies.

At a much later time than my first experience described above, I moved on to a different area of Africa, where the tumbu flies live. (I did not know about tumbu flies at that time.) One of the interesting practices carried out there was to always iron the clothing. The guys who did the laundry for us at the research site would iron everything. Shirts, pants, underwear, socks. Everything. Many researchers noted this and commented on how quaint the natives were. It was as though they had learned about ironing clothing during the colonial period when everybody worked for the white man, and continued this practice, almost like a cargo-cult, to the present day. At least when ironing our clothing. Trying to make a good impression and all that.

I was troubled by this. I had no problem with hiring local labor to do day to day tasks. If you do all the day to day tasks yourself while on a research project, in the absence of labor saving inventions like running water, washing machines, and stoves and so on, you can’t do any of the research for which you’ve garnered rare and precious funding. So you hire local folks to facilitate. But I did not want to be treated like a colonialist, with servants running around carrying out onerous tasks like ironing to simulate some sort of bygone colonial atmosphere.

So I sat down to talk with one of the “guys.” named Tomah, a professional Zorba the Greek capable of doing almost anything, often hired by travelers or research teams to run the domestic side of things, which involved, in our case, housing and feeding up to 20 researchers and 40 local workers. Tomah listened carefully to my concerns. Then he laughed. A lot. Tomah tended to laugh at me a lot.

“Mzungu!” he said, “Hutakukamata manano ile! Husikia!” (Roughly translated: What a dumb-ass you can be!)

He then proceeded to explain to me the life cycle of the tumbu fly, the medical consequences of infection by them, and how only by ironing out the clothing … all of the clothing … could one kill the eggs thus avoiding serious complications.

That was the first of many opportunities Tomah embraced to save my dumb ass.


  1. #1 Markk
    October 7, 2009

    Ha Ha, You know “junk DNA” was what popped into my mind as I was reading this, believe it or not. Here come fresh humans with their analysis of DNA and we see all this waste and all this junk, it seems. The more and more we understand the more and more things aren’t so wasteful. I think the Hurricane Lamp principle might be pretty widely applicable.

    Anywhere elaborate procedures or, for example, algorithms in computer programs have had, call it, selection pressure on them, they get quirks that to someone without context look inefficient. That is part of why old highly used code always looks like junk to a new person coming in, and as programmers get real experience you see them leaving things alone. The reason is they don’t want to have to relearn all the context around a program unless they have to.

  2. #2 Bodach
    October 7, 2009

    Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to Africa to act like a know it all. Whenever you think you know more than the people who have been “x”ing for a while, you’re wrong.

  3. #3 Hypatia's Daughter
    October 7, 2009

    “Hurricane Lamp Effect” Love it!
    There is also the “Calendar Caper”. Our as astronomy club buys calendars from Astronomy magazine to re-sell to our members. Every year some genius suggests we make our own using our members images. So, I ask, do you know how much it would cost to print them? No (they never researched the cost). Do you know how many we sell every year? No(they never asked me). Who will collect, edit and put together the calendar for printing? (Um, someone, but not them).
    Like Tomah, you get tired of explaining it over & over again to the “dumb asses”.

  4. #4 SQB
    October 13, 2009

    The other side of this coin, however, is ending up with an onion in the varnish.