Universal Harvester: a Novel

Readers seeking a horror novel will probably be disappointed with John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester.  It is true that some of the novel was a “total [page-turning] creep ride, but the book’s true genius is its atmosphere created by the narrative and the characters’ loneliness–that universal loneliness felt by (I guess) all of us.  Perhaps Jacob Brogan nails it in his review when he writes, “… the only monster is the deep well of our shared sadness. Layers of loss accumulate throughout: Of the media we enjoy, of the communities we grew up in, and, most of all, of the people we love. ‘It’s in the nature of the landscape to change, and it’s in the nature of people to help the process along.'”  Brogan is also accurate when he likens the novel to an X-Files episode.  Is Universal Harvester X-files meets Annie Proulx?  Eh… Nah…  Universal Harvester is its own thing, but I guess “X-files meets Annie Proulx” is how I’d describe it if I had to try to explain it to someone.

Cover of John Darnielle’s book, Universal Harvester

It’s a disorienting novel, and I accepted my disorientation by reading some Good Reads reviews (it was reassuring to see that I was not the only one trying to unpack the novel–and there really is a lot to unpack).

It’s important to consider your choices carefully before settling on a course of action; when you keep changing course, you forget where you are.  It’s disorienting.”     — J. Darnielle

*possible spoilers ahead*

Universal Harvester is a book I’d like to go back to now that I know there are no jump scares, violent sociopaths, and bloody body count.  Like the fields of Iowa and the long, small town country roads, there is a lot of room for exploration.









Makey Makey Eggs & Bakey

There was no bacon or eggs involved in these Makey Makey creations, and given their penchant for expiry that’s probably a good thing.  There were several instruments and an attempt at a flatulent door handle to name a few.

“Often in school we make projects and research and learn and study but by the end we never have anything we can use or enjoy. It was awesome to be able to design and improve and test anything that sparked our interest.”

— Parker


“Specifically, we wanted each string to play a chord. After researching, we found out that the school computers were not updated enough to do chords. But thankfully, Parker showed us how to efficiently use garage band and we had plenty of time to experiment with guitar sounds.” – Jess


“Our original idea was simply to make a trap, using a banana or a door handle so that when people touched it it would make a noise to catch them off guard. This was productive though as it taught us how to use the makey makey and also different ways of grounding it, as that was our main problem. THis proved important as our idea changed to making a guitar.” — David

“I was surprised to see that a project I made, which was just a tutorial, had over 30,000 views on the Scratch web site.  It was kind of nice to see tha something I made a long time ago had actually helped people.”  – Kyle


Makey Makey Eggs and Bakey: A reflection

That I write with great affection,

Even if this project left me a little achy.


There once was an idea, a piano,

I thought through Scratch it would sing like a soprano.

Alas, the the program was of low quality,

And me, who is of great frivolity,

Decided to give Scratch a “no.”


Then, I heard a glorious song,

From another group, it came along.

It was Garageband they had pulled up,

In my head it was stuck.

To switch to this program, it wouldn’t take long.


Off to work I went,

And a lot of time I spent,

A piano was made by another.

But another idea did I discover!

Over change of plans, I did not lament.


Every stretch and every stick,

Laying copper wire was easy but not quick!

Every bend was a compromise,

Glue was what I came to despise.

By the end I was already sick.


But low and behold,

The metal could I fold!

The bends should be copper on copper,

Then the glue will no longer be a blocker,

So my keytar I began to mold.

I was surprised at my design.

Maybe I learned it somewhere devine?

Without any effort it seemed to come,

Probably because I surf the internet until  my mind is numb.

With the pictures of cable management I had seen, it was right in line.


Time constraints were frustrating.

Good thing I didn’t spend any time waiting!

With not a moment to spare,

Or a moment to stare,

I finished the project I was creating.

All in all, it went well.


In fact, I think it was just swell.

I enjoyed this project very much.

It was different to make an object to touch.

I look forward to the next one, farewell.  

— Jasmine

I knitted some things: a blog post in (mostly) pictures

Years and years and years ago when I lived in South Carolina, I came across a newspaper article in The State (or maybe The Free Times) about the South Carolina Knitting Guild.  I went to a meetup (before Meetup was a thing).  I got knitting lessons.  After that, it was scarves for everyone!

I gave knitting up for a while.  Who had the time?  I recently came back to it though, and I’ve been pursuing other textile/fiber related crafts like embroidery and crocheting and such.


Attempting to learn to crochet. Crocheted macarons

This return to knitting has a lot to do with my son and this book of sea creature patterns.


It’s fun to knit for kids.


Angler fish #1


Angler fish #2


Sea star


Eyeless octopus

knitted Hermit crab. In progress.

Hermit crab. In progress.

I’m also thinking a lot about the history of what’s considered to be feminine crafts thanks to conversations with other fiber/textile-loving friends and Margaret Wertheim, who visited The Steward School earlier in the year to talk about the Crocheted Coral Reef project, which got me thinking a lot about STEAM, interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary/multidisciplinary/whatnot studies, the importance of downtime, and the people who encourage and amplify our crazy “What if we did this…” ideas.

Like all summers, I have big plans for exploring questions.  One area of interest is the use of craft for social comment in both the past and present.



The Mosquitoes (a Prisoner106 activity)

Richmond has seen a lot of rain and everything is green and overgrown in my yard.  The mosquitoes are out, and appropriately serve as the subject of this sound effects story.

“The Mosquito Gets His” (with audio from FreeSound*).

FreeSound is a wonderful site, and there I was able to choose from many, many recordings of mosquitoes.  The one I selected was actually of a mosquito and fly trapped in a window.  I imported the track into Audacity, edited out the fly bits, and shortened the clip.

I then went hunting for sounds of a crowd.  Ideally the sounds of people at a picnic, but the noise of people at a theme park entrance worked well too.  Finally, I hunted down the sound of a short, confident slap.

The “layering sound in Audacity” tutorial told me everything I needed to know to adjust the volume of each track, move tracks around so that they don’t all play at once, etc.  It’s been a while since I used Audacity; the tutorial was extremely helpful as a refresher.

* You can find the sound tracks here: mosquito effects, crowd noise, final slap



Before the internet…: a not very well thought out personal history of media and networks

I’ve been thinking a lot about Red Burns lately.  For someone so influential, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information or analysis of her work out there.  I think I was looking for tweets where she burped out bite-sized nuggets of wisdom or maybe I wanted a memoir where she lays out her philosophies on art and technology in an easily-digestible, quickly-consumed listicle.  What I got (with my limited research) instead was Big Bird and Beyond: The New Media and the Markle Foundation and a 1971 New York Times article called, “TV of the People Operating on Cable.”

Both sources talk about Burns’s work with NYU’s Alternative Media Center, which eventually morphed into the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Burns’s overarching philosophy that technology should empower people.  Specifically the Big Bird book and NYTimes article focus on Burns’s work with public access cable and training citizens and community organizations to produce shows for public access cable.  Public access cable was a platform for a community’s voice.

Snippet from McCandlish Phillips's "TV of the People Operating on Cable."

Snippet from McCandlish Phillips’s “TV of the People Operating on Cable.”

I grew up in rural Virginia in a town with less than 10,000 people.  There was one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school.  There were no traffic lights.  Once school was out for the year, I spent summers writing letters to my friends in other parts of the county, because calling some of them meant making a long distance phone call.  Long distance calls required parental permission, and permission was granted only in special cases.

I loved writing letters.  I loved receiving letters.  To feed the beast, I ended up responding to several pen pal ads in esteemed journals like Tiger Beat and Bop.

Teen Beat cover from the 80s/90s

Not Tiger Beat, but six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

The pen pal ads divulged important and essential information about the pen pal seeker: favorite color, favorite foods, favorite movie, favorite member of New Kids on the Block.  If someone sounded like a potential BFF, you picked up a pen and wrote a letter.  Sometimes those lucky enough to have their ad chosen for print in the teen magazines wrote back!

I’m assuming that the kids who had their pen pal ads published in the teen magazines were swamped with letters from adolescent girls and boys.  I didn’t get many responses, but there were enough for me to realize that ads for pen pals in teen magazines were just a gateway.  There was a whole pen pal culture out there, and part of that culture was friendship books, which circulated with letters.

Friendship books

I stole this image from the Internet. I am sorry.

Friendship books were small books that accompanied letters.  The creator of the friendship book would include his/her name and address and then pass it on to one of his/her pen pals.  That pen pal would send it to another pen pal.  When the past page was filled, the book was returned to the friendship book’s creator.  He/she then has a passel of potential pen pals.

I wrote A LOT of people.  A few of them lived overseas.  Most of them lived in the states.  A pen pal in Louisiana told me all about Mardi Gras and sent me a package full of Mardi Gras beads and cake babies. Jenny from South Carolina and I exchanged letters for a long time.  We probably started writing to each other when I was in 10th grade.  I sent my first email to her my freshman year of college.  I met her for the first time when I went to tour the University of South Carolina for graduate school in 2000.

My hometown was so far away from everything.  We didn’t have cable.  The “local” college was 30 minutes away, so listening to the college radio station wasn’t an option (and I probably wouldn’t have known it was a thing anyway).  I was at the mercy of mainstream radio and its top 40 hits.  Like the Internet, exchanging letters exposed me to a lot of music and books and ideas I wouldn’t have considered mainly because I didn’t know what was out there.

Those friendship books held the names and addresses of people who contributed to the evolution of my taste in music and teenage philosophies.  I found REM (which was not hard to do as all of this coincided with the release of Out of Time).  I found Juliana Hatfield.  I started taking guitar lessons.  Somewhere along the line there was a subscription to Sassy.  I found zines.  Somewhere along the line I had a pen pal fight about Lollapalooza.

A pen pal once sent me a mixed tape.

I can only recall one song.  It was “Oh Bondage Up Yours” by X-Ray Spex, and it was the most amazing thing I ever heard.  It sounded like every show and house show I would see in graduate school and beyond (I was in Farmville for my undergrad years, and the bands that came through there sucked).

Things, of course, changed.  As they do.

AOL connecting logo

Online! Yay!

Physical letters stopped coming and going.  I maintained some relationships for a while through email.  Chat rooms and forums opened up opportunities to meet and talk to new people.

Things were more immediate, naturally.  But interactions were also more fleeting like conversations with someone in an elevator.  Each person was going somewhere else.  Might as well chit chat along the way.

But this isn’t a “Technology is bad.  I wish things were slower, and I wish people sent me mixed tapes and Mardi Gras babies” post.

Reading about Red and her work with public access cable got me thinking about my history with the Internet, which got me thinking about pen pals and the flow of information (in this case friendship books and mixed tapes) through a network of folks interested in and doing the similar stuff.


Hello from AltFest

Last year the school where I work explored options for a new schedule for lower, middle and upper schools.  A consultant came in (as they do) to evaluate the current schedule, the culture, the ins and outs of the lives of students.  There was a long meeting where a few drafts of schedules were reviewed; the pros and cons were weighed.  I don’t remember many of the details or the conversations (it was, after all, over a year ago, which is practically an eternity ago).  I do remember talk of rallying points.  These are points in the school year that give students, staff, and faculty a break from normal routine.  The rallying points are something to anticipate.  Convocation.  Homecoming.  Fall break.  Snow days.  The spring fair.

I’m at the AltFest at VCU, which is very much a rallying point for me.  Even though we’re close to the end of the school year, it’s good to get away and explore topics of open and connected learning, technology, #learningheroes.  It’s nice to see some friendly faces that I haven’t seen in a while and meet some new folks.

AltFest kicked off Tuesday with #ALTCamp or a couple of media-related workshops led by Molly Ransone (who has the most awesome blog header ever).  Those attending the “Lights, Camera, Teach!” session were invited to pick from a host of props (a model of an anemone, a butterfly net, a DNA helix, etc.) and a script.  We then entered the Jazzmosphere to film the bit, which would be used in a later workshop on editing video and making amazing things from green screen footage.

Wednesday’s dose of ALTFest started off with Mimi Ito, who unleashed some interesting research about affinity spaces, the lack of access to extracurricular activities for kids in homes with limited resources, engagement (or lack thereof) in formal educational settings, successful mentoring, how to be the “Aquarium Shop Guy*” or connect kids with their Aquarium Shop Guy/Girl.

The keynote resonated as I’ve been thinking about access to extracurricular activities through schools, public libraries, and other community organizations as well as the fierce competition for students’ time.  With the new schedule, the clubs period was reduced to 40 minutes once a week.  Students in clubs, which are (in theory) created and directed by students, met during this block of time assuming there were no class meetings scheduled.

* Mimi Ito started with a story about her son, who found and scooped up tadpoles on a hike.  He went to an aquarium shop to find the necessary accessories for keeping these tadpoles alive, and ended up finding someone (the guy who worked at and/or owned the aquarium shop) passionate about aquariums, aquatic life, amphibians, etc.

The Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Alice Campbell, Digital Initiatives Librarian at VCU, hosted a Wikipedia edit-a-thon where participants added or edited Wikipedia articles.  This tweet from Melissa (who writes things here) sums up the feelings:

There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to adding or editing a Wikipedia page.  I was going to create a page about Nara Sushi, a sushi restaurant that once existed at 1309 West Main Street here in Richmond (it’s now home to a hotdog shop or something).  One could eat sushi by day, but by night it was home to some AMAZING punk and metal shows.

Apparently people slept in the back.

Apparently people slept in the back.

I opted not to add the page, because what could I offer other than the physical address?  Could I use oral histories from people who went to the shows?  Could I use information from people who once worked there?  Does that stuff count as reliable resources to Wikipedia, or is that stuff considered original research?  Would some Wikipedia editor curse my name, because Nara Sushi isn’t notable enough to warrant its own page?

So many questions!  It was the questions that made me think how great a Wikipedia edit-a-thon would be for students who struggle with citations or who are bored with a traditional research paper.  When creating a new page or editing a page that currently exists, (if one is a decent human being) one must be informed on the topic.  Therefore some prior reading and synthesizing is necessary.  I’ve seen plenty of students pull a quote out of a source and slap it in a paper with the justification, “Well, I need to cite five sources, so….”

I imagine giving students the opportunity to become an expert in an area of interest to her/him and contribute to Wikipedia, something she/he is familiar with, would bring about some compelling results.

Students struggle with citations and sources.  What’s credible?  When is something considered authoritative?  What’s the difference between a journal and a magazine?  What does peer-reviewed mean?  The Wikipedia edit-a-thon really allows for the unpacking of a source, especially if there’s the chance that another editor might call one out (in a nice way, of course) on a questionable source or edit.

Co-Creating a DML Distributed, Open, Collaborative Course

Lindy Johnson and Anna Keune talked about their work co-creating open, connected courses through DML Commons.  After discussing the planning process and the elements of the two courses currently in progress, we broke into small groups to plan our own DOOC.  What would the subject be?  Which elements would we include?  The group I was in decided that we’d want ALL the things:  a course hub (and this, and this), the integration of Twitter, blogs, etc., webinars and accompanying etherpads for conversations/questions, the opportunity for students to help and teach each other, etc.

As for the subject, we didn’t get to that, but I have a few ideas circling.  What would a distributed, open, collaborative course about Richmond neighborhoods and their histories look like?  Can public libraries leverage DOOCs for entrepreneurs, inventors, and makers in the community?  Based on an email from a friend in a local public library, I wondered if public libraries can leverage the DOOC model to address the learning needs of the community.  How does one solve for the digital divide that still exists in many areas?  There’s a tech committee at school, and we’re talking about digital literacies and how to teach those.  Would a DOOC work?  Is it even necessary?  What about a 23 Things-like thing for staff and faculty?  Is that even necessary or wanted?

And there is the question.  What do people want?  What do learners want to learn?

Lindy and Anna asked us to share a time when we asked students what they wanted to learn and came out of that.  I didn’t share (because, introvert), but I did think back to a info literacy session I did last year when I asked students to write down their thoughts or questions about research on a post-it note.  The post-its were given to me, and we went through them.  Questions ranged from “Is it ok to use Wikipedia?” to “What is NoodleToosl?”  It was an awesome conversation.  Often the question on the post-it lead to other questions and concerns.

STEAM is Not a Big Enough Tent

I didn’t actually go to this session hosted by Josh Weisgrau and Colin Angevine.  The description for the session reads as:

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math have coalesced under a larger interdisciplinary tent known as STEM.  Recently educators in the field found that there was a missing creative element, and STEM became STEAM.  The story we will tell is about how STEAM is still not a big enough tent.

I’ve talked a lot about STEM and STEAM and project-based learning and social entrepreneurship with staff, faculty, and students this semester.  I didn’t think I had the cognitive surplus for one more STEAM-related conversation.  After watching some curious tweets roll though, I regretted not going.

If you don’t have time for the Youtube video, you can read Colin’s “Outgrowing the Acronym.”

So that’s the quick run down from day 1 and 2.

Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by  Robert Bejil

Mic drop.  Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by
Robert Bejil