I’m sitting in my room back in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia as I write this. I’ve almost completed my third year at UMW, it being officially over as soon as I can get myself to press the submit button on a final assignment. Time really does fly here, but in that time I’ve learned new things, them being not just class material, but things about myself. If I had elected not to take this digital studies class, I would have missed out on an interest I had no idea I had. In the beginning, I was a bit unnerved about having to get in coding for a website. My freshman year was rough due to the computer science classes I was taking, yet could never seem to grasp, so anything involving angle brackets and parentheses triggers a few flashbacks. Yet, instead of shying away from the task, I used a lot of personal recreation hours to get the hang of things. I really appreciate how responsive coding an HTML page is, how instant feedback can be provided on what does and doesn’t work as soon as you save and implement it. I think it would be incredibly beneficial for me to continue pursuing material of this kind, so my next project is figuring out how to make my class schedule work towards not only my major of English (Creative Writing), but also towards the Digital Studies minor. A lot of the websites I want to work and write for in the future desire their employees to understand how web content works, or how to properly check and cite web sources, and I’ve begun my own personal journey into that through this class. Over the summer, I’m going to continue to code web pages on my own time and enhance my understanding of the HTML and CSS languages and architectures. There are plenty of helpful communities and knowledge repositories out there, like Codecademy and W3 Schools, not to mention other message boards like Reddit or StackOverflow, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find help in spades.

Before I finish up, I’d also like to take a moment to thank my professor, Zach Whalen, for being a wonderful professor. DGST 101 has been one of my most positive academic experiences at Mary Washington, not due to low difficulty or small workload, but through a comfortable progression and gain of the knowledge necessary to finish these tasks. If I tried to get ahead at any time in my work and encountered a hiccup, the help received usually in the next class or two answered most of my questions. If you’re a student, and you’re wary on taking a digital studies class, I highly recommend that you do. You’ll learn so much about how new technology works and how to make use of it effectively that you’ll have a leg up on the competition when trying to sell yourself as an employee to a company, or when you start building the infrastructure for your own personal projects or organization.

To any readers I have, thanks for sticking around for these updates. I’m still planning what I want to use this WordPress site for over the summer, but I’ll make sure to drop an update on my life regularly, to keep any of you who care informed. Have a great summer, Eagles.

Methodology Module Plans

For the next module, I’ve decided to work with the visualization of a set of data, or “seeing all the things.” My plan is to take scans of the pages of three horror graphic novels that I own and compare the color palettes to one another. I’ll create a composite image using the IMJ program developed by my professor, and see what observations I can make. I’ll be doing this for 30 Days of Night, the first volume of Revival, and the first volume of Nailbiter. I expect the first one listed to feature a lot of black, blue, and white towards the beginning, eventually including a LOT of red when the vampires finally show up to the setting of Barrow, Alaska. Other than that, there’s a fair amount of blood in each collection, and it should be interesting to see if that change in the palette occurs at roughly the same time over the lengths of the books. They all feature a fair amount of gratuitous violence, but the overall spread is another thing I’ll be analyzing.

The only thing that worries me is the designing of an attractive web page. Coding has never been my strong suit, but HTML doesn’t look too intimidating, nothing like Python or Ruby or some other esoteric grouping of letters, numbers, and various brackets. I think if I put some time into going through the codecademy lessons introduced to us at the beginning of the semester, I should be fine. The great thing is that I have the Digital Knowledge Center here on campus should I get super stuck anywhere. Should be interesting, and I hope I can deliver.

 

Digital Polarization Thoughts and Reflection

Digital Polarization Initiative Banner

I’m not gonna lie to you, I thought I was immune to being swayed by the clickbait that plagues the Internet. I thought my college boy brain could easily pick apart all types of fake news and sensationalist headlines that dominate my Facebook feed, and I was damn wrong. I’ve fallen for the same things that everyone around me has, but this project has opened my eyes to how easy it is to check the facts surrounding an issue. The probability of the issue is I’ll fall for something again, but at least now I know proper procedure to correct myself.
My group worked on the reporting of an issue originally known as, “Black Activists Launch Monthly Fee System For Guilty Whites,” that told how direct members of the Black Lives Matter movement started a reparations system that preyed on the racial guilt plaguing white Americans. The original article was published by the Daily Caller on December 5th, 2016, and the subsequent reporting on the topic featured articles with more and more volatile titles to direct outrage at the members of the movement who started this fee system. In truth, the fee system is a subscription service that one can sign up for, with price points ranging from $25-$100, that will provide you with tasks to “be an ally.” The website for Safety Pin Box states that the two women who founded this service, Marissa Jenae Johnson and Leslie Mac, have worked with BLM, but are not direct affiliates of the organization, and that all the money received will go to benefit black women. Two of those black women are the founders of the service, and they do not state how they will use the money.

At first, I thought people were just trying to paint BLM in a bad light. The rhetoric of the titles suggests that these online news outlets were trying to play off of the outrage that some people would feel for African-Americans to demand reparations for slavery today, and I thought the article would be grossly over exaggerated. To my surprise, the Daily Caller was partly true. While the women are not claiming reparations for slavery or systemic racism, there is a preying on this idea of “white guilt” that the two women are hoping will financially benefit their program and, in result, themselves. There exists a level of ridiculousness with this issue. I know that racism is real, that it is alive and well, and I also know that I’ve only ever experienced one side of the issue. At the same time, just asking for money isn’t going to make the issue go away. Two black women telling you that you are a good, not-racist person because you give them money neither makes you good nor not racist. I wanted to highlight this point in my editing of the Digipo wiki, and I hope my group and I were able to get that idea and the facts across to other fact checkers.

No matter how well read or how educated you are, people will always be able to play to your biases. That’s why it’s so important to know how to research news reporting well, and to see if a site is all about telling you the facts or just about getting you to click on those ads for that sweet, sweet revenue. Childish Gambino said it best on the track “Redbone” off of his album, Awaken My Love: “Stay woke.”

Digital Archaeology Reflection

Prior to this module, the only thing I knew about the development of the smartphone I use, an iPhone 6S, was that it was produced in a giant factory-city owned by a company called Foxconn. I heard from my dad that Steve Jobs and the other Apple bigwigs worked very hard to get the necessary land, materials, and contracts to open this massive center of production, but even then I could not comprehend the amount of injustice that happens on the premises. The hours are so demanding that suicide at the facility is not uncommon and, since the workers also live at the location, their lives become eating, breathing, sleeping, and speaking the manufacture of the technology that has become so intertwined with our, the average American’s, idea of daily life. I love having my stupid little device as much as anyone else around me, but learning that people all around the world live and literally slave away for its production hit me hard, and the experience was quite jarring to put it lightly.

Phone story screenshots

Opening up with Phone Story and an excerpt from Kevin Bales’ Blood and Earththe mining and distribution of columbite-tantalite quickly piqued my interest, and once my group and I had finished busting open our Philips iPod Dock/Speaker/Alarm, I identified the company that made one of the chips as Holtek Semiconductor, Inc. I made their supply chain my target, and I wanted to see if their company conflict minerals policy has held true since their founding in 1998. The first two hours of digging didn’t come up with a lot of leads.

A soldier stands guard over the prisoners of war being forced to work in the harsh coltan mines in the Congo

There were a few threads on Newegg and TigerDirect that discussed what parts and what companies were doing business that most likely used slave labor to get the necessary raw materials, but those were more general computer parts than basic Radioshack tech. Many of the sites I browsed through looked like they hadn’t been touched since the late 90s and, based off how many times my virus and malware detection software popped off, I think it’s safe to say their architecture probably hasn’t had any attention since then. After another couple hours of sifting, the forums began to get more and more modern, and eventually I found a Mega.co.nz link that was a repository of public transaction records for Holtek. Now, if you think computer code is lifeless to go through, try going through a bunch of business legal jargon and alphanumeric codes for who knows what. There wasn’t a key or anything, but I kept my eyes open for key phrases like “shipping,” “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” “Australia,” and “columbite-tantalite/coltan.”

Something about me is that once or twice a month, I’ll have a night where sleeping is just impossible until the wee hours of the morning. Having nothing to do, I decided to get back to deciphering those documents. I had made my way through about forty pages the previous night, and I felt I could knock out at least another twenty or so. Then, a chat box opened up in the lower corner of my window. Many alarms went off in my head, for I’ve heard horror stories on how people will go to parts of the web they shouldn’t only to have a chat box appear with some random posting how they have all of their geographic information and have sent an armored van full of nasty dudes to their house to make them the latest addition to their illegal torture live-streaming website. Very quickly, thankfully, my OCD brain turned off and I realized that since I had made a Mega account to get the most out of the service’s interface, I remembered that users can chat with each other. So the box read, “Hello.”

So I typed back, “Hi there,” and this is how the conversation went, slightly paraphrased for grammar’s sake:

What’re you doing here?

What do you mean?”

Why’re you looking at these files?

I’m a college student working on a digital archaeology project, I wanted to see where Holtek Semiconductor gets their coltan from. I thought these had already been published in the public sector, should I not be looking at them?

Oh. No that’s fine, just nobody ever bothers to look for that kind of stuff. You’re access is the first activity we’ve seen on those transactions for five or so years.”

We? Do you work for Holtek?

CryptoCat chat client logo

Upon asking that question, I got a link to the homepage of an encrypted chat client by the name of CryptoCat, along with some information that I assumed was to be used to connect to the person I was talking to on Mega. I had used CryptoCat a few times in high school, when I was heavy into an anti-government, anti-surveillance, punk music mindset, so setup was more or less like riding a bike. After successfully connecting, this mysterious man behind the curtain told me that he was an accountant for Holtek in Taiwan named John. At least, that’s what he said I could call him, since he said I probably didn’t have keys on my keyboard capable of writing out his actual name. I asked him if he worked at the HsinChu City location, but he wasn’t comfortable giving out that specific of information. I asked why the secrecy and encrypted communication, and he informed me that some of the programs that monitor Internet usage in nearby China collect information from some servers in Taiwan. His actions up to this point were just routine protocol on identifying if it was another bot program from China, or an anomaly like I turned out to be.

After talking about the political climate in China, and how much censorship affects web usage in all of Asia, I got back on topic to coltan. I wanted to know if all the materials that Holtek used came without slave labor, and that they actually came from Australia like most of the trade reported on Wikipedia. John informed me that, for that product and the year it came out, the coltain most likely came from Australia. Nowadays most companies get their coltan from mines in Africa, but they avoid business with countries like the Congo. However, the product from the Congo will be housed in the same warehouses as coltan from Australia or other parts of the world. In these storage facilities, it’s all just coltan, and with occasionally inaccurate weigh-in machines, Holtek might end up with a half a ton of the material from the Congo. Internal investigation shows that this happens for about lesser than or equal to .01% of their supply, and that’s low enough and out of their hands enough for them to keep their policy and how they’ve stuck to it on their homepage. I thanked John for the time and info he gave me, telling him that finding his document backup was like finding the next big ore vein for my project.

I never thought that my seemingly microscopic investigation would send me down such a deep rabbit hole, but it was a real eye-opening experience. All of my work hammered into my head the idea that there are real people behind every step of getting the tech we here in the first world can’t live without, and some of those steps aren’t pretty or nice or happy. I can’t get rid of all the illegal coltan mines that violate human rights with one blog post, but I can spread awareness to those around me, and I hope that helps plants the seeds of change for a more responsible tomorrow.

Reflection on Trolling

Taking a chance to look back on the trolling module, I’m kind of upset that I didn’t take the time to create something humorous like one of those videos I’ve linked to here on my website or in the trolling channel for our class’s Slack. Putting myself into the position of trolling for views could have been a lot of fun, and I would have loved to flex my video editing muscles to make a knockout end to the presentation I had.

lulz

With that in mind, I’m particularly pleased about the last slide I got to handle, “Tips on Avoiding Trolling,” because it was something I knew a lot about. To be up front, if you go on the web, there is no chance of avoiding trolling in some form. Commenting on a video or post, or even having any sort of political view sets one up to be offended or targeted in some way. The way of the web is delegated by clicks, views, and keystrokes, and controversy drives all of those things en masse. Describing someone as, “fake and gay,” in a comment on a video made by someone with a dedicated fanbase assures that someone will respond to it to rebut these egregious claims, but that’s just what the offending troll wants. The resulting flame war will drive traffic to the video and the offender’s profile, bringing more fans who will want to white knight their chosen web personality, but also conjuring up more trolls from the bowels of the Internet. This happens all the time, and with the bigger personas involved in trolling, no matter the type, major news outlets are even choosing to cover these instances as breaking news stories. There’s a lot of debate out there concerning real versus fake news, and there is no doubt in my mind that Internet trolls are going to have a hayday influencing bigger websites to rake through their muck concerning words you can’t use, symbols you can’t use, and views that make you a trash person, whilst somehow incorporating cats and inside jokes/memes from the depths of the web while doing it all, “For teh lulz!”

 

You can’t fight trolling as long as anonymity exists, and even if that were to be taken away, the extreme distances that we are all connected over can prevent real world consequences from happening.  There are people out there who wouldn’t hesitate to go to some guy’s house after he’s bragged about the size of his anatomy and remarked about how much someone’s mother has enjoyed it in a Call of Duty game, but even they lose traction after finding out that the foul-mouthed trog has an entire ocean between them. Trolls like these like to swing for the fences, targeting whoever they land a blow on first. People like these should just be ignored, for attention only feeds them and makes them stronger. At the same time, you can do your part to be considerate and put a decent amount of thought into what you post. With anonymity, you never know who you may be conversing with, and such that you might not know who you’re pissing off. You do something slightly pejorative on one message board, you call one League of Legends player’s build completely idiotic and nonsensical, and the next thing you know you’ve got someone tracking your IP and DDoSing your router so hard that it makes a 56k modem look like a deep space transmitter.footage hacker

When it comes down to it, going online and being trolled is complete RNG (random number generator), and you just have to hope that your number doesn’t come up for someone with unparalleled technological skill.

My Time with Interactive Fiction

I’ve been fiddling around with Twine for about five days now, spending the little free time I have reading tutorials and watching how-to videos on YouTube. Twine is one of those interactive fiction creators that requires almost no coding, but to create a more immersive experience, I’d suggest having some knowledge about CSS and HTML. I played around creating a scene from one of my favorite literary works, H.P. Lovecraft’s A Shadow Out of Time, where the character finds a lost city in the middle of the Western Australian desert, deep beneath the sands.

 

I decided to set my interpretation many, many years afterward, with my main character being Arthur Peaslee’s grandson, who receives his grandfather’s journal at his funeral. He then decides to set out and discover what his grandfather found all those years ago, and in the lost library city of Pnakotus is where my work begins. At the beginning of the work, I wanted to put some kind of sanity mechanic in place once the character begins to read the works of the library, these tomes containing hundreds of stone pages of recorded history from all points in the universe at all moments in time. As the player begins to explore the manuscript more and more, which I could continue to add entries to as my knowledge of actual history and capacity to invent something Lovecraftian both improve, there would be subtle things at first to suggest that maybe they’re reading something they shouldn’t be. Maybe the knowledge they are accessing has been hidden away for a reason, which would be reinforced by the appearance of flavor text such as, “You swear you hear a whisper in the distance,” or perhaps clips of eldritch symbols flashing across the screen. Eventually it would reach a point where the player character would be eaten by a shoggoth, another creation of Lovecraft’s, and the player would have to start over, hopefully navigating the manuscript more carefully. Ideally, I also would have like to add some kind of special ending that would be unlocked by reading specific entries from the interactive manuscript and using that knowledge to go down a different path. But, Twine has its limitations, and the low barrier to entry of coding knowledge has proven to be too much for me. Computer science has never been my thing, and it showed when I tried to add more complex paths to my story. Another important thing to mention is that Twine saves all records of your story to your web browser, so when you have a weekly dumping of that info, you might find yourself having to start from square one.

From the work I’ve done, I’ve discovered that the designers that make more intricate pieces of interactive fiction, such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead video games, there are so many deeply webbed and interconnected points in those stories that I can’t even begin to comprehend. I became confused just from Twine’s interface that eventually becomes a massive sprawl of passages and possible outcomes. I can’t imagine how commercially successful pieces must have several whiteboards of connections at their respective companies. This idea I have is something I’d like to revisit in the future, but I’d like to have a more tech savvy partner working with me, to help implement the system ideas I have when I have a bit more free time on my hands.

For those future wannabe-interactive storytellers, I have a few pointers:

  1. Don’t think too big for your first story
  2. Keep the cookies in your browser
  3. Develop your knowledge of CSS and HTML before diving in

 

Maximum Disrespect

At the moment, I don’t know what game I want to dive into utilizing the capture card I just installed. I want to get into making interesting/stupid videos about games, but nothing’s quite grabbed me, at least until I saw these two videos below. For Honor is coming out on Valentine’s Day, and features vikings, knights, and samurai in a massive continent-spanning war for honor (duh), resources, and supremacy. The combat system in the game has been hailed as fresh by the reviewers and forums I read say it’s very intuitive, easy to get started with but quite difficult, although satisfying, to master. But now I know that there seems to be a fair amount of cheese, and this footage from the beta shows a bunch of things I hope will still be fully released game. Finally I can get a sense of all of those crusades jokes I keep seeing passed around by spamming flip-kicks as a Peacekeeper and knocking people off walls in 1v1s. Well, I know that’s what my brother’s going to be doing.

These two videos showcase a bunch of funny tricks and some absolutely fantastic editing that is major inspiration for myself.  If you like what you see, consider looking at Iron Pineapple and yung maestro‘s other stuff and maybe subscribing. I bet they’ll appreciate it.

Hello world!

My name is Nikolas Dennis, and this is my dedicated wordpress blog for my digital studies class. I’m an English major at the University of Mary Washington, and I’m exploring the steps involved with building a website and establishing my own personal domain. Most likely I’ll be blogging about things that I find my mind stuck on, or posting drafts of work for my creative nonfiction class. I’ve written articles for a few sites in my spare time, and I invite whoever reads this to watch me grow my voice and style.

At the moment, my site architecture is very simple. I’m just learning the beginnings of HTML coding, but computer science of any kind has been a topic I’ve struggled with in my time here at school. I’ll be plugging away at new formats, but for now, enjoy my main page at nikolasdennis.com of me holding my wonderful dog Morty whilst celebrating his third birthday (I was way more excited than he was).

I love novels, Medium articles, video games, and the color green. My favorite superhero is Spider-Man, and I like to analyze the lyrics of rap songs in my free time, both the linguistic elements and clever wordplay.