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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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Weaving in Tapestry.

My tap essay was recently featured on the front page of Tapestry, which was a pretty neat experience for someone who’d been entirely unaware of the app’s existence until a couple of weeks ago. I absolutely love this style of storytelling. The minimalistic format inspired me to take my piece in a somewhat unusual direction and really consider the impacts of the graphics I used in particular. I’ll definitely be making more of these in the future — there’s something powerful about the streamlined aesthetic, and the rigid boundaries are less of a cage and more of a challenge to push the format in whatever new directions I can. 

You can check out my essay here: . (Wish I could embed it, but WordPress apparently can’t handle technology this cutting-edge. Some day, some day.)



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The Creative Process: an illustrated guide

A few weeks ago in class we were asked to doodle our workspace and the creative process we used to make our video projects. It’s an intriguing subject to reflect on, and I thought I might share my sketches here — particularly since they’re done with Paper, an iPad app I’ll be reviewing shortly.


This is a garishly-colored version of my desk. I’ve always admired folks who can work in public, but when I actually want to get things done I have to quarantine myself in my room until I’m finished. I do my best work late at night, keep a collage of cool pictures pinned to my wall for inspiration, and have my guitar within arm’s reach in case I get stuck and want to play some music to clear my head.


The second sketch here is a far more streamlined version of my work process while making the video project: it’s chronologically correct, but a more genuine model would include far more dithering, swearing, and acquisition of tea. Illustrating a work process was an interesting exercise in turning complex ideas into little symbols, and it was neat to break down a somewhat more jumbled topic into discrete categories like this.

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The opposite of cyberpunk

I am not writing this entry from a computer. This fact has caused me more than a little consternation over the past several weeks.

At the end of last semester, I unexpectedly became a sort of iPad beta tester on behalf of the Department of Learning Technologies. In keeping with my tradition of naming electronic devices, I called my new companion Jensen (after the protagonist of a certain futuristic video game you may have heard me talk about before) because it represents a sudden technological upgrade I never specifically asked for. Like all Apple products, it’s glossy and minimalistic and a certain aura of life in the future seems to hover over its glowing screen. As somebody who grew up on science fiction but has never owned much of the real-world technology that seems to be evolving to match it, the novelty of a device like this is slow to wear off.

I’d been facing a computing conundrum prior to leaving for Switzerland: my laptop is an ailing 6-year-old contraption that would not have survived getting dragged across an entire continent for half a year.  What better excuse, I thought, to take this new iPad out for a test drive?

Jensen and I were going to be unstoppable, I thought. I could take the iPad with me throughout my travels to run translation apps so I could talk to anyone, anywhere. A GPS function would be infinitely more convenient than paper maps, and could point out hotels, restaurants and espresso stands no matter where I wound up. I’d be able to chat with strangers, research local attractions, and keep myself entertained in transit (all while keeping up with my classwork, of course.) And I could record the entire experience in real-time. The possibilities were infinite: I’d become a sort of wandering techno-god, powered by prosthetic knowledge and existing in perfect symbiosis of human and machine —

Except I’d failed to consider the wireless.

See, internet access is a thing we take for granted in the States. Free wi-fi’s practically a right, with entire cities like Seattle and Denver making it accessible to the public, and 4G networks powering smartphones in the most remote locations.

Not so in Europe. Anywhere in Europe, it would seem. Our apartment here in Riva has no wi-fi, meaning I have to make pilgrimages to the villa just to check my email and wind up staying in the building for most of the day for convenience’s sake. The nearest business I can think of with publicly-accessible wi-fi is the McDonald’s in Lugano, several train stations away. Wireless has been hit-or-miss in most of the places we’ve traveled, too — it’s expensive, impractically slow (frequently the two go hand-in-hand) or not available at all.

iPads don’t work so well without the internet. Needless to say, I’ve had to make some alterations to my original tech-fueled schemes. I need to learn to read maps and timetables rather than relying on websites. I need to learn — actually learn, or at the very least write down phonetically — how to ask for directions in a variety of languages. I need to learn to manage my time and internet access when I have it — it’s application season and emails from back home don’t stop rolling in, so taking responsibility for communications is a priority. And I need to re-learn how to take notes by hand.

If the cyberpunk genre is categorized as “high-tech and low-life,” I’m living the opposite. The process has forced me to go slow, be flexible, and reaquaint myself with storing data in my head rather than keeping it a couple of clicks away. It’s been as good an excuse as any to unplug for a while and try doing things by hand again. I’m not sure I would have attempted anything of the sort if it weren’t out of necessity, and I’m curious to see if my relationship with technology will be a little different when I get home.

For now, I am going to finish copying the notes for this entry from my travel notebook into the iPad and hit Publish. It’s time-consuming, sure, but kind of funny — I am starting to get used to it, and I don’t mind nearly as much as I thought I would.

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Bene cane (in the style of H.V. Morton)

The dogs of Lugano are as well-styled as their masters. The city is further removed from Italian nobility than Milan or Bellinzona, but the region as a whole seems to echo the Sforza predelection for canines. Sitting on a well-worn park bench by the lake, one can watch the sidewalks become a promenade for the locals and their pets as the sun begins to climb above the eastern mountains. People- and dog-watching are pastimes that may add layers of character to a city if the observer knows what they are looking for.

Most of the familiar breeds I spot come from working or companion rather than show lines. There are plenty of small dogs, but none of them are toys: there is a greater trend towards functional terriers than the neurotic purse-dogs one finds carried as bits of living decoration in American cities. A lady passes with two miniature poodles, which are beagle-sized and neatly lamb-clipped in contrast to the shivering bits of cotton-wool that represent the teacup variety of their breed. For the first time in my life I encounter a standard dachshund, a thirty-pound hound with bowed but functional legs. A person accustomed to the beady-eyed miniature type might be surprised by this sturdy animal, but dachshunds were originally bred to hunt badgers and this specimen still looks the part.

In addition to their conformation, Swiss dogs vary in other elements of style. Humane laws in Switzerland prohibit the aesthetic cropping of dogs’ ears and tails. While it is somewhat unusual to find a long-tailed Weinmariner or a Schnauzer with soft ears in the United States, both can be seen jogging happily through town beside their owners.

Many of the dogs wear jackets, an apparent frivolity that becomes practical for short-haired breeds in the frigid alpine air. The locals wear warm jackets as well, often festooned with more fur than the dogs that trot beside them. A woman in a long fox coat walks by with a small spitz. The breed’s sharp features are decidedly vulpine, and I wonder if the coordination between pelt and pet is deliberate.

A stately older gentleman with a mastiff cross pauses near the dock. Mastiffs and their kin, the heavy war dogs known as molossers, have existed in Switzerland for centuries. The tempera-and-paper illustrations at the castle in Bellinzona featured tawny, dark-mouthed dogs that could have been first cousins to the animal now obediently ignoring the ducks his master contemplates. Without the towering construction equipment just visible through the blue haze on the far shore, the scene could be timeless: man and dog beginning their day together on the shore of an ancient lake.

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Still have Deus Ex on the brain, along with most of the other people who have been spending time in the Fourth High lounge lately. We’ve been talking quite a bit about how we’d fare in a world full of augmentation technology, and figured we might as well get a little writing out of the deal.

Here’s the idea:

Fifteen years in the future, human augmentation a la Deus Ex is available to the general public. Where will you be in fifteen years? Will you be augmented? (If so, you get to choose up to five of the ones in-game.) Most importantly, in what ways will augmentation change your life?

It’s three in the morning in the rainforests of northeastern Madagascar, and I’m the only human around for miles. With no light pollution to speak of and a new moon hanging over the dense canopy, the forest floor should be ink-black and impossible to navigate. Fifteen years ago it would have been madness to do a late-night transect without so much as a flashlight, but my augmentations mean I’m practically a living research station. Instead of relying on camera traps to gather information about threatened species in remote parts of this island, I can just go for a walk and collect it myself.

Through my mechanical eyes, the world is bright as day. The tangled maze of trees and vines are outlined in pale yellow, and any animals I pass are surrounded by a halo of gold. I’ve got my retinal implants calibrated to look for the endangered creatures I’m studying, keyed in to heat signatures, movement, and pattern recognition. My HUD displays a small map in the corner of my vision, showing my location relative to the camp my team and I are working from. As somebody who’s specializing in the behavior patterns of nocturnal mammals, the ability to see in the dark is a pretty convenient thing.

Mosquitoes buzz around my ears, and I find myself wishing that my dermal armor protected against them a little better. The armor’s designed to shield me from punctures and blows — any sort of injury that would break the skin and damage tissue beneath — but does next to nothing against insects’ tiny pincers and proboscises. It’s really nice to not have to worry about infections from cuts out here, but even the small things in the jungle still like to bite. A lot.

Not that the armor doesn’t come in handy: an angry fossa tried to take a chunk out of my forearm the other day when I was adjusting its radio collar. The matrix of carbon nanotubes under my skin instantly went rigid, and the animal recoiled, confused as to why it suddenly seemed to be biting something closer to the consistency of ceramic than muscle. “No hard feelings,” I told it, buckling its collar back into place before letting it loose. “It takes some getting used to on my end, too.”

The bite didn’t hurt. Didn’t even leave a mark. Few things do anymore, and to be honest I’m not sure how I feel about that. Scars are sort of a badge of honor in outdoor research, and the only ones I’ve got left are from my pre-aug years. Before I replaced my legs, I still had silvery-pink patches on my heels from my very first fieldwork assignment in my freshman year of college. Those are gone now, along with the bad knee and the deep gouge in my shin from a childhood bike wreck and the countless small marks from a lifetime of socializing with overenthusiastic, long-nailed dogs. My legs are mostly metal now, black-lacquered augmentations that start just above the knee and end in feet that aren’t quite human-shaped. They’re closer to digitigrade in form, and make me look like I’m wearing a pair of seriously badass boots at all times. These aren’t for style, though. Fieldwork involves an awful lot of hiking, and as somebody with bad joints, it sort of made sense to replace them instead of waiting for high-impact activities to wear down my cartilage or knock my kneecap out of place again. These, along with the Icarus system in case I lose my footing in a tree or near the edge of a cliff, make me faster, help me keep my balance over rough ground, and reduce my chance of injury in treacherous terrain. And I don’t have to worry about the nightmarish consequences of soggy socks, which is a definite plus.

There are a lot of advantages to being augmented in the field, but not everyone, including some members of my research team, feel that way. Some of the non-augs think that people like me are “cheating” by enhancing our physical abilities far beyond their natural range. They’ve got a point, but I try to look at it this way: I want to be the best scientist I can possibly be. Not for personal gain, necessarily, but because good science is always going to be needed. And if there’s a way to make that process safer, easier, and more efficient, why not take advantage of it? I’m stronger and more physically resilient now than I could have ever been in a world without augmentations, and it’s made me a lot better at my job. Aside from the fact that I’ve now got to take doses of Neuropozyne along with my anti-malarials, there don’t seem to be many drawbacks in my book.

But not everybody thinks that way. As long as they’re not dicks about it, I’m perfectly fine with that. If really I wanted to, I could probably change their minds with my social enhancements, but that gets into some pretty sticky moral ground. You can’t run around wafting pheromones at random bystanders just because they disagree with you. The CASIE system comes in handy during policy debates, allowing me to analyze the personalities of committee members and tailor my arguments to appeal to them accordingly. I keep it turned off most of the time, though. I much prefer to get to know people for real, rather than try to judge them via a personality matrix. All the details and idiosyncrasies and quirks — all the things that make people interesting — aren’t things you can learn though a HUD.

I’m hit by a sudden wave of nostalgia. I remember late night college conversations back when all this technology was theoretical, and how my friends and I used to talk about how we’d modify ourselves once the future rolled around. I’m not sure we ever expected it would actually come to pass. Some of us adopted it wholeheartedly — last I heard, Devon had gotten a set of protective lenses that dramatically reduced glare from welding and molten metal,  and was suitably enthused by the whole affair. Some of us stayed a bit more ambivalent. I make a mental note to put a call in to Emily and see how Chicago’s treating her.

Something rustles in the underbrush a dozen meters to my right, and I turn on my smart vision very briefly to make out the outline of a mongoose climbing up a fallen log. My HUD by itself can’t tell me what species it is, but I watch its glowing golden outline for a moment, noting the general silhouette and the way the animal carries its bottlebrush tail, and conclude that it’s a broad-stripe. It’s my own experience, not the technology itself, that lets me identify the creature before it disappears again. Nobody’s written specific algorithms to conclusively ID these rare animals quite yet, so people still have to rely on their own skilled observations for much of this job whether they’re augmented or not. I kind of like that. Makes me feel…better, somehow, to know that some things haven’t changed.


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How I feel about the number of assignments I’ve got due this week.

It’s gonna be stuck in your head now too. I am not sorry.

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Wildlife trivia > homework, obviously.

Here is a gel pen doodle of a lammergeier, or bearded vulture, that I drew instead of drafting a bunch of my final essays.

Did you know that bearded vultures live almost entirely on bone marrow? Long after other scavengers and microorganisms have eaten most of the meat on a dead animal, bearded vultures will still be able to gather nutrition from the bones. They will pick up large bones and drop them from great heights to crack them open, and will simply swallow smaller bones whole. Their beaks are strong enough to shatter the femurs of animals as large as lambs. Their stomach acid has a pH of 1 and can dissolve almost anything the bird consumes within 24 hours. Native to mountainous regions of Eurasia and Africa, bearded vultures have a wingspan of roughly nine feet and are mostly silent aside from the occasional shrill whistle. Scientists worldwide have concluded that bearded vultures are one of the most striking examples of badassery in the animal kingdom.

There. Now you know about bearded vultures and I have successfully avoided homework for just a little while longer.

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Living in the Future

I wasn’t expecting one of my great educational experiences this semester to come from a video game. Recently I’ve been playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that deals with the science of human augmentation. Below the shiny graphics and kickass action sequences lie some pretty profound questions: how would society react to people with superhuman abilities? What are the moral implications of using physical or mental enhancements to give you a competitive edge? In a world where cybernetic implants are becoming the norm, what exactly does it mean to be human?

The game, so far, has been brilliant, but here’s what’s really got me intrigued. The technologies in Deus Ex aren’t as far-fetched as they seem, and I’ve got the Youtube clip to prove it.

There’s a lot that scares me about a future like the one in Deus Ex, but there’s a lot that amazes me as well. It seems to me that we’re starting to catch up to our own stories, and I’m not at all surprised. As Ray Bradbury said, “If anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.”

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