Seeing Squares


Animated Squares by John Johnston

There was a moment of epiphany that I had today and I’m pretty sure it had something to do with seeing the dazzling animated squares by John Johnston above. It was actually quite lucky that I saw this piece in my Tumblr feed which is filled with visual interestingness. But the post found it’s way to the surface thankfully and I couldn’t help but give a shout out for its wonderfulness, and apparently there is a method behind it  – and I want to know what it is!

And then for the billionth time I walked the hallway just outside of the classroom I teach and noticed the walls as squares – as in square pixels. And that they represented this unusual opportunity consider them as a concrete pixel display.

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These concrete blocks that were part of the unique architectural finger print of this odd public building presented an opportunity. Each 7.5″ x 7.5″ square could be any color and with 12 pixel by virtually 100s pixel wide space there might be some opportunity to create a pixel based mural. And even animate it.

There are these lovely graffiti GIFs out there, which capture a public mural’s ephemeralness by emphasizing the piece in transition. You can’t be sure what was finally ‘left behind,’ but you see the evolution of the piece captured as an animated event.

I set out to experiment with my new found pixel wall, with only about an hour before I had to be home (daddy duties). I discovered this 8 bit skull which the author of it is a little unclear. And I quickly crafted a plan.

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But I had no dark paper and ran around the campus looking for construction paper, which I easily would have found in my house! I mean any five year old knows the value of construction paper, why not an institution of higher education! So I made due with printing squares from photo copier and cutting out 42 of them.

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Now with only about fifteen minutes left before I had to leave, luckily I found a couple students to help. One to document, and one to work the Scotch tape and help me translate the drawing to the wall. That was surprisingly difficult actually, the squares on the paper are so little compared to the wall!

We pulled it off, and I’m so excited about the possibilities. I’m really hopeful that Ryan Seslow, our students at York College, and I come up with a fabulous project we can all collaborate on.


pixel skull finished2


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Reposted: CUNY Is You, Me, Everybody

I wrote this a couple months back for the CUNY Academic Commons blog Ground Control as a project team member contribution. It was published last Friday, and wanted to republish it on my personal blog because I love the Commons, CUNY, and the Blues Brothers so much! 

Jake and Elwood, brothers not by blood but by shared experience have a problem. The orphanage that brought them together as young boys and forever changed their lives is to be shut down. They need to raise five thousand dollars in eleven days to save the building that had housed them and provided a place for them to grow.

They don’t know what to do. So they go to church.

A rousing sermon is delivered by Reverend James. And in a shining moment of clarity, Jake has the answer. “The band.” Elwood at first does not understand. “The band?” Jake repeats, “The Band!” And then Elwood understands, “The Band!”


The band Jake and Elwood refer to is the rhythm and blues band they re-form in the 1980 fiction film The Blues Brothers. At this early point in the movie the audience doesn’t know what Jake, played by John Belushi, is referring to when he has his epiphany. They also don’t know how “the band” might possibly solve their problem in such a short time frame.

Over the remaining two hours of the film, Jake and Elwood crisscross Chicago convincing their old friends and band mates to put down what they are doing with their lives and get back together. Because if they do, they can perform. And people will come. And they can save the orphanage. Together.

I like to think of the early users of the CUNY Academic Commons as a group not unlike “the band”. And the people that built the Commons as the Blues Brothers. But most importantly the orphanage, they were trying to save was, is CUNY.

CUNY has an incredibly complicated history with City of New York, something I’ve learned a bit about in my work while surfacing old photos from the archives of many of the college’s libraries. The first CUNY school, now known as City College, was the “Free Academy.” Free as in no tuition, but also freeing in a sense that it was an opportunity for those to get a college education who previously could not. Hunter College, the second college was soon after founded for women. Subsequently City College and Hunter College created satellite campuses in Brooklyn which would eventually combine with the help of WPA money to found Brooklyn College.

Many more colleges followed of different types across all five boroughs and they were all free. There was no cost to the citizens of New York. They were open. CUNY became and remains the largest public urban university in the country. We have hundreds of thousands of students. Tens of thousands of faculty and staff. When someone I meet asks about CUNY, not knowing much about its history, one of the ways I like to describe it is by saying it’s a place for New Yorkers to get an education. All of them.

And until June of 1976, ending a 129-year old policy of charging no tuition, CUNY suddenly was no longer free. The city was in financial crisis and this was the only solution. A solution that continues to be seemingly the only answer in a time of perpetual financial crisis – a least for the public.

Now let’s be clear, I don’t believe that the people behind the CUNY Academic Commons thought that they were somehow going to come up with a solution to public education funding. And definitely not in eleven days. They did however have a belief that if they created a space for people from across a university to get together, something good would happen.

They built the Commons with a number of things in mind – what it would and would not be. The Commons would not be something everyone in CUNY was forced to use. It wouldn’t be perfect, and would need to be re-worked regularly with the input of its members that use it. It would be a place that allows its users to freely do what they wish with few restrictions – build sites, create groups to collaborate, share knowledge – basically trusting their judgement of their membership. It would be built on open-source software – free software – that is built by a development community much larger than CUNY. And because that development community depends on users of the software to contribute back what they’ve learned, we would share back our knowledge with them.

And the Commons would be open to the public. So that the people of this city and beyond could see what CUNY is through the kind of work that the faculty and staff do. And the public, having the opportunity to more directly engage the university, might have a better understanding of its value.

In the few years since the Commons was created there are now 4,000+ faculty, staff, and graduate students that have joined. Together they have created 500 groups to collaborate and do work. There are almost a thousand blogs  on which they reflect on their process in the academy. And their willingness to present themselves in this open forum hopefully serves as a reminder to the public as to why they/we believe in a public education.

To illustrate who and what CUNY is, I present to you a member of the Commons, Amrita Dhawan, a librarian at City College who is working to make connections between high school seniors and college freshman. Also, there is the CUNY Games Network a group on the Commons that has been engaging the university with innovative pedagogies. Their efforts have recently culminated in the University’s first ever CUNY Games Festival, a conference to promote and discuss game-based learning in higher education. And then there is a Graduate Center course being conducted in the open that invites all of us to simply consider who we are by asking us to better understand how we construct an image of the self.

These examples were selected from a quick snapshot of the ‘activity stream‘ of the Commons, which I believe provides a glimpse of what a public university in action actually does.

“CUNY is…” was a particular ad campaign used by the University a few years ago that inserted the name of a celebrated faculty member after the phrase. You would see them on subway posters and on website banner ads that displayed an image of the university as an opportunity to study with the acclaimed. These faculty deserve recognition, but to sum up that ‘CUNY is’ just these individuals does not do justice to the work of so many more.

I believe that the Commons does do justice to represent all of CUNY and efforts of the people that make up that institution. They are working to preserve the trust with the public to provide its citizenry with an opportunity to get an education. Not for the few, but for everyone.

When we discovered as a clever short URL we could use  as a quick link to share the work being done on the Commons, we were also reclaiming that ad campaign’s message for all of CUNY. Because CUNY is You, Me, Everybody. Everybody.


We’ll Keep Building At York College

When I started at York College eleven years ago supporting the edtech department (aside –  holy crap this is the longest job I’ve ever held), I was given the opportunity to look at a proposal for a communications technology major that had been dormant since 1991. At first I was, “huh what’s communications technology, it’s new media man,” but new media became not-so-new-media.

Communications technology, commtech,CT, has stuck. And I think for the better.

We’re about to embark on a transformation of the major that will be the largest since its official start in 2003. It’s a crazy, laborious process to update curriculum at a college, but hopefully we’re making a change for the better. I’m excited to finally formalize the ethos of ds106 – digital storytelling into the major (it’s been an unofficial change for three semesters, ack!).

But I’m even more excited to explore the possibilties that might come out of the makerspace Daniel Phelps and I are about to build to support a Hacking and Building course, which will become a foundation course for us. The class is going to replace an introduction to computer science course which taught principally the basics of C++.

The idea of teaching the fundamentals of programming through C++, wasn’t necessarily problematic, but the way the course has been taught was. Semester after semester the CT majors struggled to find any recognizable value for the class, which ultimately is really disappointing. We wanted the students to discover the value of coding as an opportunity to see how digital tools are built. And more importantly how they can be hacked.

Hacked not to do anything malicious of course, that’s such a 1990’s definition of hacking, but to make them your own. And to see that this should be an inherint approach to digital tools, as much as we imagine getting under the hood and modifying cars makes sense.

We’re going to pilot our hacking and building course this spring, and I’m so excited to be a student in the course as much as helping Daniel teach it (ok he wrote the course so I’m fully in a chair, not standing a lecturn). And Tim Owen’s work on the UMW makerspace deserves a huge shout-out for inspiring us as well. See below:


I ♥ Pictures of CUNY

Eric Metcalf and I have been working on a photography blog about CUNY hosted on the CUNY Academic Commons for a few months now. The original idea was to surface what we thought were interesting CC licensed photos that relate to CUNY and present a new one every day. I spent many hours searching Flickr for images and discovered some really great stuff. These are a few of my favorites surfaced early on:

Roller Derby – I love the pairing of ‘Hunter College Athletics’ with this less than conventional intercollegiate sport.
GGRD BB v QoP 071010 547

Save CUNY – This is one of many powerful images from the protest of tuition hikes at Baruch College on November 11, 2011 which turned ugly. Boing-Boing puts together a number of pieces of media (including this same photo which I just discovered).
Protesters at Occupy CUNY

Brooklyn College 1982 ID Card And this artifact is such a great piece of personal history (I identify with this one), also it’s visually emblematic of the times – smoke lens prescription glasses and the old school lamanation process.

We also tried to solicit the submission of photos using jotform and dropbox accounts and I wrote about Pictures of CUNY for the Commons but  the effort to encourage individuals to contribute their personal archives needs to be reworked. We started to run out of good photos for the blog…

Eric thought it would be interesting to rummage through the York College archives, so we headed into the basement with my digital camera and a librarian. And we discovered some great stuff, starting with this image:

Registration Day September 1968 This was a contact sheet image and I loved how it showcased ID production in the 60s – they wrote your name and title on a chalkboard which you held for the photo – brilliant!
Registration Day September 1968

And my favorite photo was, The Philosophy Club. Not just for the fact that there’s an empty bottle of Hennessy at a student club meeting, but the young man shrinking in the corner turned out to be one of the oldest members of York College’s faculty, Howard Ruttenberg. That’s 1970 and he’s still teaching philosophy 42 years later.
Philosophy Club April 1970

Maura Smale, a Brooklyn City Tech Librarian, learned about our project and turned us onto the archives hosted on a DSpace install – used sporadically by a number of the CUNY campuses. We mostly discovered scans of documents which were part of the administrative history of different campuses, but there were gems to be found like this:

President Franklin Roosevelt Speaking at Brooklyn College Cornerstone Laying, 1936

Here’s where my love for the history of CUNY began to move to a different level. I’m a huge fan of FDR’s WPA projects, and his fireside chat quote ‘Make It Work’ is one I wear on a t-shirt. So it interesting to learn that funding for the first outer-borough CUNY college was from a federal project in the 1930s.

I mean look at this, the builders of the campus lived in f*****g log cabins!
Brooklyn College WPA Construction Shack, 1936

Eric and I discovered other images in DSpace which were alarmingly beautiful such as this image of Electronics Students who were attending the the New York Trade School, which was taken over by New York City College of Technology in 1971.

We’ve looked more through the DSpace and visited other campus archives and marveled at the history of CUNY discovered – the Brooklyn College Fair, the origins of the College of Staten Island, the first CUNY chemistry lab, and more.

But by far my favorite image we’ve discovered is this photograph of a slate board at the Free Academy, the original CUNY, in 1899.

I imagine this artifact as the original yearbook in a single image. Before there was the oppportunity to photograph, write, and layout all the different perspectives of a particular year at a college, there was this effort to remind those that followed, “Epstein was here.” When I look closely at all the scribblings and scratches of the students of the class of 1899, my mind turns to a scene from Dead Poets Society.

Robin Williams played the esoteric poetry professor of an uptight boarding school and he herds his boys into the hallway to gaze at a display case showcasing the images of alumni long dead. And as he encourages them to lean into the glass for a closer look, he pantomimes their dead voices, “carpe diem…seize the day…make your lives extraordinary…”

I like to think of Pictures of CUNY as a channeling of the infinite imaginations of those that believed that college education would change their lives. It’s a weaving of the visual tapestry of the largest public urban university in the world through a combination of public, personal, and institutional archives. Presenting a unique history of the people of New York City striving to find a better opportunity through a free higher education for over a 125 years, representing an almost cliched portrait of the city of opportunity through the lens of the City University of New York.

CUNY Week 8 – So You Want to Make a Movie…

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by Michael Branson Smith

With the rest of ds106 we are going to be jumping into making videos for the next few weeks and we had a fun start with the #ds106xtranormal blitz in class. I think that there was some really interesting re-envisioning of dialogue in – It’s Just a Cigarette, There is No Me and You and Don’t Touch My Radio. All of the language for these clips have a lot of aggression and cursing, so there must be something in the robotizing of posturing that’s disarming and humorous.

I’ve decided that following the UMW plan to do a film analysis and some video assignment pre-production is going to be a good one so I’ll summarize the assignments here, but you can look at the full description on ds106 as well.

Assignments for this week:

1. Choose a favorite film that you believe exemplifies quality filmmaking for its compelling writing, directing, cinematography, art direction, acting, and editing. Jim Groom suggests looking at AFI’s list of the 100 Best movies of all time for inspiration (good advice).  For the film you choose, pick three scenes that exemplify your beliefs about the film and blog about it. For analysis tips, consider Roger Ebert’s ‘How to Read a Movie.’ Be sure to embed screen captures and/or video clips for each of the three scenes in your blog post. Tag this post ‘analyzethis’ (no quotes).

2. Because ds106 video assignments will require added technical skill compared to the design and audio assignments (think combining them actually and you have video assignments), we are going to do a little pre-production for this first week. Select two video assignments and create a blog post for each describing how and what you will need to make the video. UMW suggests Return to the Silent EraVintage Education Video, Opening Credits Redux, Play-by-Play, Plinkett Review, Make a Scene from a Horror Film, and Redub a Movie as good assignment choices.

Make sure that the assignments you choose will be ones you will want to complete next week, as that’s the next step. For each of these posts tag them ‘preproduction’ (no quotes).

In class next week we’ll be playing with a number of the tools you can use to create videos, so I’m looking forward to coming up with a blitz assignment for us to practice.