Learning some steps in the Great Dance

In class this past week we watched The Great Dance, an excellent documentary on the !Xo San people and their hunting traditions. The San people live in the notoriously harsh Kalahari Desert and maintain a pre-agricultural lifestyle — their food is gathered and hunted using millennia-old techniques. It is an incredibly hard lifestyle, but I found myself amazed at the hunters’ physical abilities — the fact that they could read the most minute signs and accurately recreate the circumstances of an animal’s death, the fact that they could chase a kudu on foot for hours until the animal was exhausted and simply allowed itself to be killed, the fact that they could even survive on so little for so long.

Screech Owl had previously discussed what he called the Human Operating System 1.0 — this pre-agricultural lifestyle that required people to be fully engaged with and deeply aware of the world around them — and the hunters in this story were clearly living by the same system that had served humanity for thousands and thousands of years. In this day and age, we’ve mostly forgotten the kinds of knowledge that allow the San people to survive. We don’t grow up learning how to read tracks like a map or how to inhabit the mind of an animal we’re pursuing to better predict its movements. And for the most part, we don’t need to in the modern world — at least, that’s what popular knowledge would have us believe. But there’s an incredible depth of information we have no access to if we ignore these things, and this course may be a way to begin to remedy that. Tracking is like dancing, said one of the hunters in the movie, and I think it is a good thing that we are beginning to learn some of the elementary moves.

The second week of class each member of our group selected a small strip of colorful fabric that symbolized a particular direction and the energy associated with it. My blue floral print represented Northeast, a direction symbolizing imagination and sensory integration. Screech Owl asked us to carry the cloth around with us or put it someplace we’d see it often for a week, and then every time we noticed it, use it as an opportunity to check in with our senses and reconnect with our environment. I tied mine to my satchel so I’d see it every time I was about to go to or depart from a class, and it really did help reorient my attention.

On Wednesday, the Northwest group led our classmates to a small tree in the courtyard of Peddrew-Yates. We tore our ribbons in half and tied one piece to the branches, saying aloud a wish or goal we hoped this course would help us achieve. By the end, the shrub was full of colorful scraps fluttering in the icy breeze.

I pass the tree almost every day on my way across campus and can’t help but smile a little as my attention automatically broadens in response — owl eyes, deer ears, and dog nose checking in with my surroundings. After a semester out in the Blacksburg weather, I am curious as to how much these scraps of fabric — and the students who tied them there — will have changed.

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Black Willow, checking in

As part of The Nature of Leadership, I’ll be documenting and reflecting on some of our class activities on this blog in the coming weeks. There will be a lot of nature talk, a little philosophy, and quite a bit of running around in the snow. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. Stay tuned.

One of the first things we did in class was receive nature names and get divided into bands — cohorts that will stay together for the duration of the semester.

I’m part of the Cicada band, and the name I pulled was Black Willow. It’s not a majestic weather event or some variety of charismatic megafauna, but as a general enthusiast over the native plants of southeast Virginia after a dendrology class I took several semesters back, I kind of dig it. Black willows (their Latin name is Salix nigra) are interesting trees — they help stabilize the soil around waterways and are an important part of many riparian ecosystems. Their bark and branches can be used in basketwork and weaving, and their inner bark contains a bitter compound called salicylic acid — the chemical from which aspirin is synthesized. All in all, they are a plant whose moniker I am happy to adopt.

Plus, you know, they’re really lovely trees. Go down to the Duck Pond sometime and see them yourself.

(A bonus: I couldn’t help but think of the chart below as we pulled our names from the container. None of us, at least, are called Cheeseweed, which is probably for the best.)

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On Origin Stories

Another semester, another series of blog posts. This new set tagged ENGL 3834 is for Intercultural Issues in Professional Writing, so expect to see a lot of writing on race, class, gender, power, and privilege in the context of communications. It’s gonna be heavy but interesting stuff, and I’m looking forward to the kind of conversations it will generate.

This week’s topic: origin stories, including our own. Whether you’re talking about superheroes or scientific principles, backstory is essential to put a person or a series of events in context. History is a kind of road map that explains why things are as they are today, and oftentimes it’s best to start as close to the beginning as you can.

Here’s my take on that.


Somewhere in the neighborhood of 13.8 billion years ago, there was nothing, until very suddenly there was something, which exploded outwards to form everything. Everything was, at the beginning, a chaotic sea of atoms which, herded together by gravity and electromagnetism, started to gradually form larger and more complex ways of organizing themselves. Some groups got so large and dense and hot they became stars, while other smaller groups became planets, and as those stars and planets settled into the dance the fundamental forces wrote for them. On some of these planets, chemicals near a hydrothermal vent or soupy pool catalyzed by lightning decided to get together and make something of themselves. Atoms organized into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into organs, and organs into living creatures. Some of those living creatures self-organized into what we know as people, and then into tribes, and then into cultures, until we land back in the present, where we find an individual sitting at their computer, thinking about where they came from and how they could even begin to answer that question.

This person knows they are a close cousin of violets, viruses, and vultures, and that the computer they’re typing this piece on is powered by electrical impulses and mostly made of carbon, same as them. When it comes down to it, this person thinks, everything has the same origin story if you look back far enough, which kind of makes this a family history, right?

And that, they think, is pretty cool.


Asking me where I’m from will earn you different answers on different days. I was born in Detroit, grew up in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC, return to Ohio on holiday breaks, and spend most of my year in Blacksburg. I’ve lived in a tiny town in southern Switzerland and with a pack of marine researchers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I’ve taken enough road trips that I measure I-75 by landmarks rather than by miles, and I’ve done enough flying that all airports are a kind of home. I cannot point to any one of these and say here, this is where I come from.  I am, I suppose, a sum total of all these places, and all the other places in between. Points of origin are harder to define than I had thought.


There are thousands of origin stories in a single person’s life: what set them on their career path, how they came to convert to a new religion, an accident that changed their outlook, what made them want to be a writer. Which of these, exactly, were you looking for?


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The beginning is the end; keeps coming around again

This, if I have counted correctly, is my last required post for Writing and Digital Media. I’ve actually had a blast in this course. The projects required a great deal of hard work — often more than I realized until they were in full swing — and really challenged me to push the bounds of my own writing as well as that of my multimedia skill set.

The course was an exercise in embracing the unfamiliar: I learned how to operate at least half a dozen entirely new media platforms or applications and had to not only adapt to them but push them to their limits to see what they were capable of creating. I learned to edit video, make recordings in a sound booth, compose music, write essays in Tapestry, refresh myself in HTML, critically analyze new apps, and countless other peculiar little skills that I suspect may actually be useful somewhere down the line. Even if they aren’t directly, performing these tasks made me more comfortable with working in an unfamiliar medium, and challenged me to expand my ideas of what multimedia discourse really is, and the ways in which I’m capable of contributing to it. And that, to me, is pretty damn worthwhile.

It’s very late at night as I’m typing this post and I’ve got a song stuck in my head again. I listened to this track on repeat while working on a number of the aforementioned projects this semester. It’s from a band called How To Destroy Angels, and has a bit of a multimedia quality itself — the band uses a blend of traditional and electronic instrumentation in their songs, and the visual aesthetic of all their videos focuses on “analog glitches” — taking digital film, converting it to analog VHS cassette recordings, running it through a broken VCR, and filming the results with a digital camera. Multimodality is really an excellent thing.

Here’s to the end of something great, and to the hope of more quality digital adventures in the future.

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Wrapping up the Trees

Well, it’s that time of year again — the last HRCS blog post is due tonight, and many of us, dreary and delirious from impending finals and ongoing projects, are grasping at straws for something to write about. The Knowles book was lovely, but academic writing is particularly hard right now, and I know even I’m looking for a change of pace. So instead of answering this vague not-prompt directly, here’s a collection of tree-themed resources, many of them calming and a little fun, that might serve as a jumping-off point for someone else’s final post.

+ Identify a tree!

+ Play with a fractal tree!

+ Look at some amazing trees!

+ Plant a virtual tree!

+ Check out cool treehouses!

Happy finals, friends, and godspeed.

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Online Identity Roundup

Another post of references for the Unit 4 project:

+ Blogging Anonymously — A short piece on the importance of pseudonyms and how to create one online. Interestingly, all the author’s recommendations run counter to the behavior rewarded on Tumblr: she suggests you keep all information vague, don’t mix business and pleasure, avoid posting photos, never give out your contact information, and never trust people with your real identity. On Tumblr, though, this is commonplace behavior. To what effect? I’m not quite sure, but it sure is interesting to see how standards change.

+ Pseudonyms Are Essential Online — a very strong argument for the use of pseudonyms that focuses on them as a way to create a safe space folks who risk being harassed and bullied for their identities, particularly LGBTQ* youth.

+ To Be or Not To Be a Pseudonymous Blogger — a really good piece on how pseudonyms impact the credibility of the writers behind them, and whether it’s ever appropriate to use them in a professional context.

+ Why I No Longer Blog Anonymously — a short entry on Tumblr identities being discovered and the awkwardness that ensues. Directly relevant to my topic, for once.

This project seems to be leaning in a somewhat different direction than I’d anticipated based on the sources I’ve found. Not that that’s a bad thing, just a little unexpected, but I’m rolling with it. Here’s hoping it works out all the same.

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Every day we’re Tumblin’

Okay, so it looks like the final project’s gonna be on digital identity after all, which means I’m gonna need to add some sources about Tumblr to build out from my original essay. The following link roundup may or may not wind up being relevant to my project, but they’re interesting articles all the same. There is a serious lack of academic articles about Tumblr, which, I know, is a little ridiculous to say, but it is a unique platform that I’d be interested to see more academic discussions about. There’s plenty of material out there — memes, selfie culture, linguistic anomalies, reaction gifs, social justice blogging — that manifests uniquely in the culture that evolved on the site. For now, have a couple of tangentially related links.

+ Tumblr Is Not What You Think — an outsider’s perspective on the site that addresses pseudonymity and argues that Tumblr is, in some ways, the “anti-blog.” I disagree with several parts of this piece (mostly the suggestion that there’s very little in the way of interpersonal interaction on the site), but it’s an interesting point of view.

+ Pinterest, Tumblr, and the Trouble with “Curation” — Not directly related to my topic, but an intriguing article on why people collect images and cultivate their blogs (and this their online identities) the way they do. Quote of the night: “A commenter added: “My Tumblr isn’t so much curated space as it is a symptom of deeper pathologies made manifest.”

+ Tumblr needs to fix its transparency problem — Again, not directly related, but as a Tumblr user I couldn’t agree more. For all the site’s positive qualities, it doesn’t always listen to (or, some would argue, respect) its user base. As someone who grew up on Livejournal and has been watching LJ slowly go dark over the last few years due to similar woes with the site management, it’s a worrying pattern to establish.

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Remix Roundup

Emily’s got a great blog post up about the art of the remix that’s got me thinking:

I’m not going to get into an argument about copyright law here – though I want to, because copy right law is the most ridiculous thing – because Part 4 of Everything is a Remix makes the argument better than I can. What I will say is this – without remixes in music, we would have never had the ‘golden age’ of hip hop. We wouldn’t have an alternate interpretation of Year Zero (an album that went so far into storytelling, it created a universe). We wouldn’t have Star Wars or Star Trek or Stargate. Society would have missed out on countless books loosely based on life, on genre, on problems with fantasy.

Let the world remix, because we’re missing out on that kind of originality.

In the spirit of that post, let me link you to a couple of remixes in a range of media that I’ve found particularly inspiring — or at the very least, amusing — lately.

+ DJ Earworm is best known for his annual United States Of Pop mashups, which combine over a dozen of the year’s hit pop songs in a mix that not only sounds great, but actually makes sense lyrically. It’s a great recap of the year’s Top 40s hits blended in a novel way — whether or not you actually like what’s on the radio these days, you’ll appreciate the skill it takes to blend this many songs seamlessly.

+ We all probably consumed so much turkey last week that you don’t want to hear about poultry ever again, but I have to mention the horrendously catchy PSA from State Farm that shows how you can prevent turkey fryer fires with the help of none other than William Shatner himself. Not content with a simple spoken announcement, State Farm created a remix of their original ad, setting Shatner to weirdly addictive music and thus ensuring that it would get stuck in listeners’ heads — which is, after all, the point of a public safety announcement. I know I’ll never forget how to safely operate a deep fryer after this, and you won’t be able to, either.

+ And this fantastic blog as a whole: RebelliousPixels, run by ‘pop culture hacker’ Jonathan McIntosh. McIntosh discusses everything from gendered advertising to copyright claims to what happens when you combine right-wing politicians and Donald Duck. Trust me, you want to check this out.

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Tropical glitch

(Another day, another blog post about glitch art. I’m beginning to sense a theme here.)

Earlier tonight I was sorting through some old photos I keep in my desk and rediscovered a small stack of highly unusual images: pictures of the jungles of Madagascar, though you wouldn’t know where they were taken at a glance. They’re blurry, oddly-colored, and poorly-composed, but it’s not the fault of the photographer: these pictures were taken by a motion-activated trail camera used to document wildlife passing through the forest.

I have these photographs because I used to do undergrad research with the team of wildlife scientists who set up these camera traps. They were looking for endangered animals native to the region, and to do that they had to sort through thousands upon thousands of trail cam pictures, manually identifying any creatures they saw and collecting that information in a spreadsheet. My job was entering that data, and I’d sit for hours at a time flipping through stacks of photographs, looking for the telltale signs of glowing eyes or the tip of a tail that meant an animal had passed that way.

The problem with leaving cameras in the jungle is that the jungle really doesn’t like cameras. If you take any electronic device out in hot, wet weather and strap it to a tree and abandon it for a month, chances are some things are probably going to go wrong, as evidenced in these photos. While many pictures turned out just fine, some did not. These particular images would usually have been trashed, but they looked so unique that I decided to hang onto them instead.


Here’s a double-exposed photo. The spokes that wind the film forwards and backwards in the roll must have gotten jammed somehow, leading to two shots of the same treeline. It’s also clear that this photo itself was a mistake — found at the beginning of the roll, it was probably a misfire from when the researchers were setting the camera up and must have accidentally pressed the button while the lens pointed skyward.

The red patches you see here are from a light leak. Somehow the housing of this camera was damaged, allowing a little light to get in and burn the unexposed film. It’s possible this camera took a bad fall from a researcher’s backpack, or was hit by a falling branch, but either way the red patches made many of the details hard to resolve.

Ah, yes, and my favorite kind of error — you see those colorful patches that look like little fireworks? Do you know what that is? Mold. It’s mold, growing directly on the film inside the camera. The rainforest is not a good place for electronics to begin with, and the damp, hot climate means that mold will grow on absolutely anything — including the gelatin in a roll of film — with great enthusiasm.

I love these photos. While they’re useless from a scientific point of view, they’re eerily beautiful, and they actively demonstrate just how hostile an environment the jungles of Madagascar can be. The cameras we used became waterlogged and misfired and were overtaken by fungus, and they were state of the art research equipment. A picture’s worth a thousand words, but a damaged picture that demonstrates the hazards of the environment in which it was taken could be, I think, worth even more.

It’s easy to forget that there’s more to a photograph than the subject it depicts — there was a machine present that brought the image into being. Glitches are a reminder of the presence of the machine, and then of the humans behind it. These errors showcase the nature of the medium and environment that produced them: they are, in their own peculiar way, an exercise in mindfulness. By displaying evidence of what went wrong in their creation, these broken images call direct attention to the devices that produced them and how those devices operate, making the process of their composition inescapably visible. 

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A cozy kind of glitch

I’ve been on a bit of a glitch art bender lately — ideas for my Unit #4 assignment, maybe? — and while I was out doing a little holiday shopping this weekend I mentioned to my friend that I’d love to see glitch aesthetic incorporated into clothing somehow — the brightly-colored abstract patterns that can result from databending would look awesome printed on a scarf or a shirt.

As it turns out, someone had a similar idea. Glitch Textiles doesn’t make clothing, but they do produce stunning blankets woven to look like they were produced by broken VCRs or digital cameras. I’m not sure I’ve ever coveted a bolt of fabric more.


At $200+ apiece, these blankets are way rich for my blood, but I can admire (and obsess about a little, okay) from afar. There’s something intriguing and terribly cool about taking an unassuming digital error and converting it to something deliberate, tangible, and useful in the real world. I love it.

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