Decisions, decisions.

Augh, how on earth am I supposed to decide on a topic for our final project for Writing and Digital Media? I’ve got two ideas, both of them equally exciting, that I have to choose between, and it’s a source of some real consternation. A brief overview of where I might be going with both:

1. Online Identity

My argument focuses on the idea that online and real-world identities are beginning to merge in unusual ways, and that managing both simultaneously is a complex task that grows ever more complicated with each new bit of personal information shared, voluntarily or not, online. I would shift the focus and content of the original essay to how the nature of the Tumblr community impacts the sort of information people share about themselves on it. Presenting an essay about a particular platform on the platform itself would be an interesting exploration of how it works in real-time. I would incorporate multimedia elements and feature links to relevant sources within the body of the blog.


2. Glitch Art

Some individuals are reluctant to classify glitch art as art, as its production involves much more in the way of trial and error and an eye for aesthetic than physically doing the kind of work or requiring the kind of technical talent needed to produce other types of art. Because glitch art is inherently random, its critics sometimes claim that there is no skill involved in its production and it is more of a novelty than a legitimate art form. I, however, would argue that glitch art is art in the same way that photography is art: while the machine you’re using is technically doing all the “work,” there can be just as much thought and effort that goes into composing, editing, and curating glitches as there might be in any other artistic medium.

I know, I know, better this than having no ideas at all — I guess I’ll just blog a bunch about whichever one I don’t use to compensate.

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Another finished piece!

Here’s my finished website for our Interrogating the Interface assignment:

While I can’t say I was a huge fan of our Ignite presentations (time limits that strict make me feel like I’m trying to defuse a bomb, even if I’ve practiced plenty) I actually enjoyed this part of the assignment. Google Sites aren’t particularly attractive platforms, but all pre-built clunkiness aside I am happy with the end result. I loved being able to integrate multimedia aspects into the body of this piece — because Paper, the app I focused on, was based on creating images, it was great to be able to demonstrate not only the inner workings of the program but also showcase pieces I’d made with it myself.

I’d used Paper for almost a full year before I wrote this essay about it, and while that certainly ensured that I had plenty of first-hand experience with it, in some ways experimenting with a completely unfamiliar app would have been really neat. I already knew many of Paper’s ins and outs and had adjusted to its quirks and learning curves, and thus approached the assignment a little differently than I would have if given a new program to dissect with a strictly analytic eye. I’m curious to see how many of my classmates will continue using the app or program they reviewed after this assignment is complete — while reviewing something less-than-helpful would have made for a fun, snarky essay, I am glad I got to work with something I genuinely enjoyed already. 

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Media and messages

(Doubling up on blogging assignments here — this post contains topics relevant to HRCS and ENGL3844.)

As an aspiring science writer with a soft spot for things in the woods that aren’t charismatic megafauna, I’ve really enjoyed reading The Forest Unseen, our most recent book for HRCS. I do, however, wonder why on earth we’ve chosen to read it as a book.

My Writing and Digital Media class has recently focused on the topic of remediation, which refers to representing something produced in an old medium in a new or developing medium. Blogging is a perfect example: it takes standards from traditional printed texts and builds on top of them, incorporating old canons while growing in novel and interesting directions itself.

David Haskell’s excellent blog Ramble contains the same sort of philosophical musings on natural phenomena as his book, with the added benefit of images and hypertext. The multimedia nature of the blogging platform he’s chosen allows him to bring his text to life in ways that would be impossible on printed paper: he can link to previous entries that deal with similar topics, source scientific information, and illustrate his prose with images of the creatures he describes. He’s also able to tag the topics of his posts, and a comment section allows for ongoing discussions with other readers and the author himself.

Who, when given the choice between a printed book and a blog containing  interactive multimedia information (which, by the way, is also free), would choose the book — and why? The fact that this year’s HRCS did choose the book over the blog is somewhat telling, and I’ve got a couple of theories as to why this is the case.

Despite the information in the book and the information in the blog being of equally high caliber, there is the idea that blogging is inherently informal, while a published book is inherently more academic. To be fair, publishing a book means that a certain number of highly qualified people have seen your work and found it to be worth sharing with the public — in many ways, publishers act as gatekeepers of information, particularly in the scientific realm. Even if the information in a blog and a published book are identical, the book will be given greater credit. This is not entirely unfair, but it is not always accurate, either — the quality of a piece of writing is independent from the platform it’s presented on.

The HRC is in the somewhat uncomfortable process of renovating the small group meetings formerly known as CMs, and in an effort to add more academic heft, HRCS has more or less been turned into a reading group where we read “real” books (and hopefully have “real” discussions about them.) In an effort to look as professional and academic as possible, I think we may have missed an easy opportunity to explore a medium that’s quite new to some folks here (we’re required to blog, so why not use a high-quality professional blog as inspiration?) and provides just as much — if not more — of an opportunity for intellectual discussion and engagement as the book we wound up with.

I’ve got some further thoughts on this, but I’ve also got quite a bit of other homework to complete and will duck out for now. Stay tuned — I’ve got the sense that I’ll be mulling this over for a while.


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The Setup

Inspired by this site, here’s how my setup works.

Who are you, and what do you do?

E. Lower, senior in STS. Science writer, amateur naturalist, and habitual tinkerer. Jack of all trades and master of none, but I’m pretty cool with that. I have an approximate knowledge of many things.

What hardware do you use?

An ancient and highly temperamental Toshiba laptop named Jimbo. An iPad adopted from the Learning Technologies department named Jensen. An old but functional 4 GB iPod Nano named Tony. A Samsung Intensity II dumbphone named Wheatley. An external webcam, a Wacom Bamboo tablet, and an infinite number of flashdrives. Several palm-sized marble composition books that are good for tucking in pockets to take notes on the go, a cheap cork-bound sketchbook, and even cheaper ballpoint pens that are better for sketching than any fancy felt-tip.

And what software?

I am the king of online programs and the 30-day free trial: I sketch and color artwork in Pixlr, remix songs in Abledon and make my own in MusicShake, and experiment with almost every platform that is both interesting and free across the web. Most  of my writing is drafted in Wordpad and finished in MS Word. Microsoft Outlook has been perpetually open on this laptop since I purchased it six years ago. My music is played through iTunes but very little was purchased there. I spend a lot of time on various blogging sites, though WordPress isn’t usually one of them.

What would be your dream setup?

I’ve always thought multi-screen computer setups were the height of cool. In the absence of futuristic technology that lets you play with holograms, I’d settle for a faster computer that doesn’t make noises like a drowning lawnmower when I’ve got too many programs running. Good speakers and a tablet connection for digital art are a must.

As far as the rest of this environment goes, I’d like a good studio space, preferably in the attic or basement of wherever I was living — I like being separate from the rest of my living quarters while I work. I’d like a big desk as a work surface, something that looks nice but is easy to clean up when I inevitably spill paint or ink or tea on it. Bookshelves are important, stocked with good reference material and interesting things to look at for inspiration. I’d have a huge cabinet filled with art and craft supplies and various tools I might need. I’d like to have my guitar and maybe a keyboard on hand too. A few final things: a leather recliner to sit in and read or do some sketching, an electric teakettle, and Christmas lights or little lanterns hung up everywhere.



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The art of breaking things.

I was sorry to miss last week’s discussions on word processing programs — as an avid fan of Wordpad, I would have loved to chime in. Wordpad’s got a couple of really neat qualities that I take advantage of whenever I’m struggling to draft a piece of original writing. I often have a hard time getting started on a story, and there’s something about the bare-bones simplicity of it that takes the pressure off and lets me jot down ideas without fixating on the red and green lines of Spellcheck or a toolbar filled with clutter I don’t actually need. I’ll freewrite huge chunks of the work I need to do and then just copy it into Word for editing, but the change in scenery, if you will, does a lot to clear my head.

There’s another reason I am incredibly fond of Wordpad, though, and it has nothing to do with writing. Wordpad is my program of choice for making glitch art — deliberately corrupting the raw data in an image to get interesting visual results.

My first introduction to glitch art was through Rob Sheridan, creative director for the band Nine Inch Nails. I’ve always been interested in using tools in unexpected contexts, and when I figured out I could experiment with this myself in some simple ways, I dove right in.

By opening a bitmap image in Wordpad (something that was never intended to happen) and adding or deleting just a few symbols here and there, the information contained within the image gets scrambled and the end result is a unique jumbling of colors and lines. It’s very easy to break an image so badly it won’t even display anymore, but with some careful tinkering, it’s possible to generate some eerie and occasionally very beautiful outputs.

You can go from this:


To this:


Pretty neat, huh? And all that by simply opening an image in the “wrong” program.

For a primer on databending and simple glitch art, check out this neat article, and then try it out for yourself if you like! Be sure to save your original image somewhere else though — it’s extremely difficult to undo the intentional damage you’re about to cause.

Have fun.


(Thanks to Emily Goodrich and Ben W.R. for their contributions to the gif above — last night turned into a databending party and I went ahead and made something from our collected results.)

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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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A Forest Almanac

David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen has been my favorite book we’ve read for HRCS all semester, but something was nagging at the back of my mind: I got the distinct impression that I’d read something very similar before and couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was something about the meandering reflections and attention to detail that called up something I’d stumbled across years ago, and it took me until this week to place the connection — in many ways, The Forest Unseen is a modern-day companion to Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac.

I’ve read Leopold’s collected essays more times than I can remember — as an HSE major interested in conservation, any environmental literature class I take would be remiss if it didn’t include at least an excerpt from his groundbreaking work. Like David Haskell, Aldo Leopold was a keen student of his surrounding landscape, and generated a great deal of philosophical thought from his own wanderings in the woods in the early 20th century. Leopold developed the idea of a “land ethic” — a responsible relationship between humans and the land they inhabited — and illustrated the concept with beautiful, near-poetic prose. Haskell’s call to pay careful attention to what the natural world can teach us and maintain a connection with it is its own sort of land ethic, and the two books seem like spiritual kin. Each author’s voice is uniquely their own, of course, but their eye for detail, fascination with the smallest and most delicate organisms they encounter in their daily wanderings, and sense of connection to the ecosystem around them are very much aligned.

So if you like The Forest Unseen,  A Sand County Almanac will be right up your alley. I’ve linked to a piece called Thinking Like A Mountain, which I’ve read for half a dozen different classes and like enough to recommend to you all the same. It deals with the ethics of wildlife management, and if you’ve ever heard a passing reference to “the green fire” — this is where the phrase originated. Content warning for animal harm, but I promise it’s worth the read.

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Our very own Sundance!

This is less of a real post and more of a link-dump for convenience’s sake — we’re showing our video narratives in ENGL 3844 and needed a convenient way to DJ.

The Youtube playlist:

The Vimeo playlist:

And remember to vote for your favorites, which you can do here:

Hope you brought popcorn. Let’s do this thing!

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Making it work (or, Thoughts on The Collegiate Way Of Living)

I am a huge fan of the TV show Project Runway. My family’s watched it together for over a decade, and while it’s often as fluffy as any other reality series on air, it’s got a number of elements I really respect: designers who go above and beyond in their creative use of material and design, uniquely artistic challenges, and Tim Gunn — a mentor figure who constantly provides thoughtful feedback for the contestants, encouraging them to push their creativity even further and edit their designs into something that will actually work on the runway.

I watched a new episode of the show last night, so maybe it’s no surprise that the idea of tailoring has been on my mind. One-size-fits-all looks are rarely flattering for anyone, whether they’re supermodels or communities, and I think it’s worth extending this metaphor a little to take a look at The Collegiate Way of Living.

Yale’s residential college model is pretty fantastic, but it did not spring, fully-formed, out of nowhere. It evolved naturally, growing from the shared desires of the community and changing when something wasn’t working or when new opportunities appeared on the scene, and it is fully a reflection of the students and faculty who shaped it.

I think this is an important thing to keep in mind here in the HRC. It’s difficult to imagine that a residential college model developed at Yale would be possible to duplicate here at Virginia Tech. There are, after all, a number of significant differences between the student body at these two schools — not in the caliber of the student or our academic interests, necessarily, but in our backgrounds and collegiate culture. And that is not only okay but completely to be expected! All colleges and the communities they maintain are different, and that’s something that should be recognized and celebrated.

The problem comes when we try to follow Yale’s model to the letter and expect it to work exactly the same way in a different community. It’s a fantastic starting point, but we need to make sure that we’re flexible in our adoption of this model and give ourselves space to edit as necessary. A residential model perfectly tailored to one specific university isn’t going to fit another like a glove by default, in the same way a jacket tailored to perfectly flatter one person’s figure might pull across the shoulders or hang too loosely on their friend. The trick, as any good designer knows, is to use the basic form and then work on perfecting the fit for the individual who plans to wear their garment. The same goes for the structure of a community — if something’s uncomfortable or difficult to move around in, changing it is best for everyone involved.

The HRC has grown a lot in the three years I’ve been here, and will only continue to evolve in the future — almost certainly in some unexpected directions. I would encourage community members to draw inspiration from, but not cling to, Yale’s residential college model for its own sake, and instead remain open to putting a new twist on this classic piece. I believe that if we strike a balance between the residential model we’re using as a pattern and our own new ideas, we really have a chance to make this thing work.

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