Whales, whales, whales


A few weeks ago a friend of mine shared this image that a friend of hers had originally posted to Facebook.  The image was not linked to an article and did not cite a source (I have since found that it came from The Sun.  The image sent me down a rabbit hole learning about whale beachings (there have been two large ones since the start of the year one of a pod of sperm whale in the North Sea and the other of a pod of pilot whales of the coast of India.


Some articles posed theories about how and why these animals were beaching  but most said there were no conclusive reasons cited yet.  It seems that it conducting complete narcopsies for whales is timely and expensive.  The reports for 21 pilot whales beached in Scotland in 2013 were just released in the end of 2015.  That report supported the most likely theory that I had read among the different articles: that the whales had ingested so much mercury over their life times that it had damaged their ability to navigate the waters and resulted in their fatal disorientation.  Most papers reported that sperm whales beached in the North Sea had gotten lost in shallow waters looking for a giant squid and noted that this is often thought to be the reason that whales beach: they get lost in shallow waters and then can not get out or can not find food and die before reaching the shore.


But I wondered why the whales were getting lost and if they were getting lost more often then before.  Wikipedia offered a listing of all the reported beachings of sperm whales since the mid 1700’s but when i graphed this data it seemed erratic.  Then I decided to graph all the reported mass beachings of pilot whales and the steady increase was much more evident.  I dropped the sperm whales from the exercise and decided to focus my data on the pilot whales.

The studies are still inconclusive that increased mercury levels cause neurological damage and disorientation specifically in whales but this damage has been proven conclusively in other high order mammals and one article in National Geographic cited the study of the pilot whales and referenced the possible link between the toxins and the beachings.

As further context I visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum as part of my research and had a nice time talking for a few hours to a docent there.  The museum seemed to target elementary school programs and I think a bit of that aesthetic seemed into my video!

The map that appears in the video is originally from this site.


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Bridges to Nowhere: City of Boston plans to pay for $90 million bridge for GE

This week GE officially moved its headquarters to Boston.  Many media outlets covered the event with some emphasizing the donation that the company will give to to city, others covering the tax incentive that GE will receive by making the move and others talking about the bridge that the city will pay to rebuild as part of their agreement with GE.

I first heard of the story two weeks ago at a meeting for the Coalition for the Homeless.  The group mentioned that the city has agreed to pay for the bridge for to address traffic flow in response to an anticipated increased usage as a result of the company’s move.  This news shocked me since the city had recently closed the Long Island Bridge and made no efforts to repair or rebuild it.  The Coalition for the homeless were not just upset about the bridge but also about the $150 million in tax breaks that the city and state have agreed to give GE.

For this video I wanted to play with creating voiceover though I found it to be challenging.  Though I knew of the protest I was unable to make it this week, however in putting together the video I had wished that I had been able to attend the event myself and record.

Footage of the protest is filmed by Tayla Andre and the final image of the postcard from a homeless person to Marty Walsh following the closure of Long Island is from an article by the Boston Globe.



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The Long Exit of the Long Island Bridge

A few weeks ago I bought a Spare Change newspaper from a street vendor and read an article about the closure of the Long Island bridge off of Boston.  The Island had housed nearly 700 beds for homeless residents of Boston and had 11 addition recovery centers.  The article talked about how the closure of the centers on the Island had adversely impacted Boston’s most vulnerable populations and that 18 months since its closure the city had not since replaced the facilities.

This last week I went to one of the weekly meetings for the Massachusetts Homeless Coalition of the homeless and they explained to me the public and private narrative of the how and why the bridge had closed.

I was fascinated to hear the story and astounded to have not heard it before.  Some pieces of their narrative were easy to back up through research but other pieces were harder to fact check.  Nonetheless the lived experience of many of these case workers and formerly/ currently homeless individuals provided a lot of weight.  Though I could not record the meeting I felt compelled to make a video about what I learned as part of the Explainer Assignment.

The video uses found footage and imagery and is contrasted with text that I wrote in response to my learnings through informal interviews and online research.




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We Would Drink Tea: Community, Gender and Coding


“Really just any other beverage than beer.“

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  1. Tweet from Sravanti while coding over coffee

Sravanti Tekumalla explained to me that it’s not that everyone would drink tea (or coffee for that matter), or that only tea would be available; she would not be that dogmatic.   But, her point is that if she had her own start up and if she hired her friends and they hired their friends, well, the work culture would be different from what she experiences now at her internships. There would be a culture of drinking tea, time to build relationships and opportunities to listen to everyone involved in a decision making process.


“They have a culture of drinking beer and playing ping-pong. They love science fiction.”


When Sravanti goes to work she is often the only woman in the room and though she does not always love the work culture of the tech start up world she has learned to work within it. In describing her dream start up with friends and friends of friends that exists in opposition to the culture of beer and ping-pong that she currently inhabits, she continues to say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with sci-fi and beer, it is just that she would want a broader variety of opinions and perspectives in her office.

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2. Tweet from Sravanti: applying her coding skills towards play and aesthetic exploration

From the tone in her voice I can imagine that the lone ping-pong player might even be able to thrive at her imaginary start up (though he may not have anyone to play ping-pong with). She would want a work environment with a wider range of voices, interests and experiences. “People would do more artsy things and have outings to get to know one another. It wouldn’t be more artsy because of the girls it would just reflect the diversity of our interests.”


You might attribute Sravanti’s views on who should be coding and what coding would look like to her training and experiences. As a young woman with an interest in math and science (both of Sravanti’s parents studied science) Sravanti saw how much the perception of who belongs and who does not belong can impact a person’s career choice, academic pursuits and life path.


She recalled a time in school when after receiving an A- in her Chemistry class she asked her teacher if she could make a career out of her interest in Chemistry. “Probably not” she said. But then later when one of her male peers in the class who had only received a B+ for his work asked the same question he received enthusiastic encouragement and was told “likely so.”

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3. Sravanti teaching code to her peers at a computer station in the student community space for Hour of Code in 2103.

This one conversation that her former instructor likely could not recall today, really shook Sravanti. She stopped taking Chemistry, believing based on the opinion of her teacher that she did not have what it took to make it in the field. But later she attended an all girls engineering camp and realized that she was not alone, that there were other girls who knew how to do what interested her and they were doing it well. In this environment Sravanti was not the outlier but the norm.


Now as a senior in Computer science at Wellesley College and an active member of the Wellesley Computer Science Club Sravanti is part of a community that works to make coding accessible and inclusive. During Wellesley CS Club Hackathons, Meet and Greets or Hour of Code events it is not uncommon for professors to walk around wearing doctor Seuss hats, for the club to set up coding stations in the student hall or for members to make publicity fliers that promise life-size cookies as light refreshments.


4. Publicity image for Wellesley Computer Science Club Event

In fact reading Sravanti’s tweets about coding words like “cool”, “prettyyy” “unleashed” “lovely” “creative” “wonderful” “blast” and “joy” come up. She seems fully indoctrinated in a culture that is welcoming newcomers and front-loading communication on the payback of coding. To a certain demographic her social media serves as an invitation to code.   In Facebook photos of Sravanti tagged at the Wellesley CS Club she looks like she is having fun and building meaningful relationships.

Her imaginary start up would be mostly women. Not because of explicitly exclusionary practices but just because when you trained with women, worked with women and get to know women you are more likely to hire the people you know, already like, and know to be badass, and in this case they may, just happen to be women.


She says of her current work environment in off campus internships: “There’s not much blatant sexism, its more subtle like ‘Oh you’re a girl you should design our ap and make it pretty. They don’t believe I can do the other stuff.” But even when her co-works are not limiting their expectations of her based on their understandings and projections of gender norms the work environment is still not ideal.

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5. Tweet that Sravanti was tagged in by a fellow coder at Wellesley.

“Its hard to establish a rapport when (we) have different sets of interests.” Sravanti’s co-workers often have a shared culture that doesn’t overlap with hers. And when you are the only member of a minority in the room sometimes your presence is just flatly ignored. Sravanti notes that her male co-workers often engage in conversations in front of her that she knows they would avoid or word differently if the gender split in their group were more balanced. In describing this difference she says that “the conversations are not the same ones they would have in a co-ed environment” almost forgetting that her very presence in these offices makes them co-ed. The strength of their will to ignore her presence in the room has real impact.



To close our conversation I ask Sravanti if segregational gender spaces are necessary to counteract the forces of historical and learned sexism. I ask if, were she to have children some day, if she would send her girls to all girls schools. “It would be up to them.” she says. “All women’s schools are not for everyone. You have to have a strong sense of conviction, of female empowerment, to be exposed to the idea.” Even with her own daughters Sravanti would not want to dictate what she thinks is best. She would put tea on the table but if her children are the beer and ping-pong type, then well, so be it.

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Nights in the Abandominium: A glimpse into surviving homelessness during Boston winters

From team Carolyn and Christina H.

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After Boston’s largest homeless shelter closed last year, concerned citizens banded together create C.O.P.E. (Communities Offering Practical Encouragement) and distribute goods to help those who can not find shelter survive the intense winters typical for the area.  With the third highest homeless rate in the country (behind only NYC and LA) homeless rights advocates argue it is time to declare a State of Emergency on Homelessness in Massachusetts.  In the mean time those without shelter rely on unofficial channels like C.O.P.E to provide materials like blankets, shoes and coats to help them manage the extreme weather.





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Analog Media Log


This last week I kept a log of my media consumption through digital devices (desktop, laptop and cellphone). Quickly it became evident that I was logging nearly everything that I did except sleeping. In some cases I was also leaving out talking to people (when it didn’t involve Skype, the quick Google to illustrate a point or notes typed out in a Word Doc) and on occasion I would spend time walking from place to place without texting or listening to a podcast but I learned this was rare.


I am reminded of my first Bikram yoga class as I reflect on my experience over the last week. The 90 minutes of class felt like the longest stretch of time I had gone while being awake in the last 2 years without wanting to reach for my phone and check my email and Facebook. For those blissful 90 minutes I just tried not to die in that over heated room. I wasn’t fighting the impulse to check my phone, instead my brain was occupied with just trying to fight for the most basic of my needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy. If I couldn’t breathe I couldn’t think about my cellphone.


The next class when I returned it was easier to breathe, my body had acclimated a bit and I found my attention drifting. This week I learned that I basically need to be in complete physical peril, focused on an immediate task that will have real time consequences without my undivided attention or, asleep, to not be either thinking about consuming media and fighting the occasional impulse or just succumbing to that impulse.



The other reflection I have about the week is that I couldn’t figure out a good way to measure engagement. I was constantly acknowledging the existence of media surrounding me (advertisements on digital screens at the T stop or catching a glimpse of a neighbor’s laptop screen) that I did not engage with in a meaningful way. Instead this content just fluttered in and out of my periphery. But what I felt more curious about was how much content I chose to engage with (i.e. I clicked on something to learn more, selected a podcast or played a TV show) without feeling like I had comprehended it, consumed it or leaned from it. Throughout the week my use of media broke down into the following primary categories


  • media as background white noise
  • media as stimulation and elected distraction
  • media for learning through consumption
  • media for tools for learning through production
  • media for communication


SIDE NOTE:I was fairly effective at tracking numbers 1, 3, 4, and 5 but media as stimulation and elected distraction was very hard to log. This type of consumption is often so automatic it is inconspicuous. I would get home and realize that I had checked my email and Facebook on the train but had forgotten to log it.


(media log and coding)

The bulk of my media consumption was to stimulate, distract or sooth me while I was engaging in another auxiliary activity. I would often find myself re-listening to episodes of podcasts because I would disengage in the narrative for long periods of time while I focused on something else and then re-engage only to realize I had lost my place in the story. But also sometimes this would not bother me. XFiles would play in the background as I edited videos while I had no intention of following the story plot.


By the end of the week I felt like it was not enough to have tracked what I had consumed but I also wanted to know what I had retained and my level of comprehension from the content consumption. (I couldn’t tell you the title of one article I clicked to from Facebook this week but I know I clicked on at least 20. ) That exercise I suppose is for another time.

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Vojo and mobile phone storytelling

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The mobile phone storytelling platform Vojo, which was developed by the Civic Media Lab, may be familiar to many folks from the PartNews community. It was developed after another mobile phone story telling platform VozMob achieved such success that it could not serve the needs of the various interested parties and as a result Vojo was generated. Unlike VozMob, which was developed with a specific community in mind, Vojo is intended to be a flexible platform that can be utilized by any organization to match their activist and storytelling needs.

The platform is great for organizations looking to collect stories from a lot of participants. It is easy to engage with as a user or organizer and allows people with no training on the specifics of the technology to share their stories for a specific cause or issue. Furthermore participants do not need to have a smartphone which makes the platform highly accessibly to a variety of different communities.

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To use Vojo an organization would set up a profile and then be provided with a phone number. They share that phone number with their participants who then either 1) call in to leave a voicemail with their story or 2) send a text message with their story. Additionally Vojo has the ability to geolocate the information sent by the participant so that the organization can map the stories as well.

Setting up an account is very easy and can be done in less than 10 minutes. After the account is set up all stories that come in to that organizations phone number are aggregated in one page and can be downloaded to be edited or uploaded to another site.


You can find examples of what different organizations have done with Vojo at the website.

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Christina Houle


Central, Southern and West Texas feel like home to me but prior to living in Cambridge I spent my time in NYC working as a socially engaged artist and teacher of digital media arts.   I have worked as a producer for the public art nonprofit Creative Time and the land advocacy organization 596 Acres. Additionally as a film maker I have worked in partnership with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, a nonprofit that partners activists with artists to design participatory products to promote civic engagement. As a leader on the Urban Investigation team I worked with youth in the Bronx to make a short film about how the cost of public transportation is decided in NYC.

At the Grand Central Neighborhood Drop-In Shelter for the Homeless I worked for a year as the first Director of Community and Arts Programing and at Harvard I currently work as the Digital Communications Assistant for the Making Caring Common Youth Advisory Board as well as a Senior Digital Editor for the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. Last fall in collaboration with the African American Student Union at the Harvard Graduate School of Design I designed and implement a civic leadership mapping project with youth from underserved Boston communities.  The project provided tools for youth to map local racial inequity and helped them to horizontally organize with other youth to raise awareness of the issues at stake and seek solutions from local policy makers.

Prior to living in NYC as the recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Idea Fund Grant I worked for a year on a film and performance protest series called Migration Patterns During Wartime along the Us/ Mexico Border. The project protested changing immigration policy and practices in Texas and Alabama. Older projects on trauma, parafictions, and identity swapping can be found on my site https://christina-sukhgian-houle.squarespace.com/.

My current research investigates how civic leadership is changing in the digital age and inquires how activist pedagogy can be taught to youth in this shifting media landscape.

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