Derechos, Twitter and the human condition

Posted by Chris Wray on Jul 14, 2011 in essays

Georgia Power Line Trucks

Today’s post is an essay about the events of this past week that have given me pause for reflection. Many thanks to Marla (@bluemarla) for permission to publish her photo.

Last week, I learned a new word: haboob—a violent, summer sandstorm—thanks to the powerful images of Phoenix photographer Mike Olbinski. This week, I learned another meteorological term: derecho. The northern Chicago suburbs were hit hard on Monday by a violent derecho: an intense, widespread, fast-moving windstorm that produces damaging straight-line winds. Monday’s event caught my full attention. My wife and children were staying in Chicago’s northern suburbs when the storm hit.

Thankfully, my family is safe. But in the storm’s wake, my wife and kids had to endure 76 hours without electricity, detour around downed power lines and trees, and cope with long lines at the gas station, reminiscent of the ‘70s oil embargo (those of you old enough to remember :)).

As the week’s events unfolded, my emotions ran the gamut: concern, frustration, anger, and powerless—yet I didn’t feel disconnected. Despite their power loss, my family and I sporadically talked via cell phone. I began to feel empowered, while sitting in front of my Mac pulling up current weather conditions, road closures, and latest bulletins from the local municipal websites. I created a sort of in-home command center that enabled me to feed important updates to my wife.

To my surprise, Twitter became indispensable. I became glued to it, following Commonwealth Edison (@ComEd), Illinois’ largest electric utility. At this very moment, ComEd continues to feed news to customers 24/7 during this unprecedented state of emergency. A real-time tool, serving thousands in ways that a call center or website couldn’t possible keep pace—yet alone allow you to connect, if you don’t have power. Any battery-powered portable smart device serves up Twitter.

Granted, this media has limitations: specific questions I asked weren’t addressed; some answers were highly scripted and impersonal. Yet the exchanges between ComEd and Twitter followers were largely supportive and civilized. More importantly, Twitter took on a living, breathing presence. Followers, whose power was restored, would hash tag: #ComEdRestored. By searching this tag, customers—even ComEd—could form an accurate, real-time picture of towns whose power had been restored. Now that’s pretty amazing!

A retweet by ComEd (Twitter parlance: to forward a previously sent Twitter message) caught my eye late Thursday morning. It read,

A smile came to my face. The socially constructed mosaic of the week’s information was finally coming together. Twitter messages confirmed power was being restored near my family’s location. A convoy of reinforcements, captured and tweeted by photographer Marla W. (@bluemarla), was advancing in my family’s direction. I was optimistic; help appeared to be on the way. Within a couple of hours, the call came. It was my wife’s cheerful voice, “We have power!”

So what have I learned? Social media can be a powerful communication vehicle. It doesn’t require specialized knowledge or training. It is decentralized and not beholden to one authoritative voice. It’s remarkably helpful, particularly during times of crisis. It’s predicated on social interaction that’s accessible, immediate, and relevant.

But it can’t replace the voice of my kids, “We love you daddy and miss you.” Now that’s priceless.


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Time revisited: series one

Posted by Chris Wray on Aug 31, 2009 in art, essays

In graduate school, I developed a series of essays and visual investigations on the concept of time. I thought it might be interesting to offer the following excerpts to my blog followers for your reflection and comment. At the risk of dating myself, nearly all my meaningful grad school work was done at the cusp of the digital revolution. High performance Mac desktops (remember the Mac II?) had just begun making their way into the graphic design scene. 3-D design software on the Mac platform was rudimentary at best, so I spent most of my creative hours building dimensional models in paper, foam-core and wire. I then photographed the models using an SLR 35mm camera with Ektachrome film (the significance of using Ektachrome slide film will be discussed in my next blog post).

My initial studies began with readings about the historical and cultural meanings of time. My body of work concluded with a more personal interpretation: time as a creative process and catalyst for growth.

Series One: Eastern and Western interpretations

I found the Eastern concept of time to be poetic and holistic. For example, the Chinese word for universe, (yǔzhòu), consists of compound characters that literally mean space-time. Chinese philosophers viewed the passage of time from eternity to present as zhòu and space in all directions, above and below as .

Read more…


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The Kelsey Excelsior: A Brief Ode to the Letterpress & Memory of James Trissel

Posted by Chris Wray on May 4, 2009 in essays

The Kelsey letterpress represents a last modern vestige of early printing technology. Based on Gutenberg’sicon_external_link movable type invention of the fifteenth century, the letterpress uses individually cast, reusable letters set together letter-by-letter, word-by-word to form blocks of text that are pressed onto wet paper. With great patience and skill, the letterpress page can become a work of beauty—combining the visual and literary arts.

Kelsey Excelsior 5 x 8 tabletop letterpress

Kelsey Excelsior 5 x 8 tabletop letterpress

As hobbyists, my parents purchased a Kelsey Excelsior 5×8 tabletop letterpress during the late 1950s. Together they created personalized stationery, greeting cards, and even my birth announcement. These handmade ephemera represented the state-of-the-art in personal desktop publishing during the mid-twentieth century.

I developed my appreciation for the letterpress and book arts during my freshman year at Colorado College. I spent many hours hand setting type for poetry broadsides and limited edition books under the guidance of Jim Trissel, founder and proprietor of the Press at Colorado College from 1977 until his death in 1999.

Today, as a marketing manager for a hi-tech company, I am consumed with internet communications: search optimization, web analytics, and the obsession for “sticky” web content—topics seemingly far afield from the aesthetics and tactile beauty of the letterpress. Yet Jim’s mentoring taught me that the art of the letterpress is not something to be rushed. It is carefully planned and executed in a deliberate and precise manner. Fine letterpress work is as much science as it is art. Jim instilled in me a sensibility for good typography and an understanding of a well-balanced page—skills that I invoke daily as a professional designer.

While the pervasiveness of electronic communication calls into question the future of the printed word, I am certain the letterpress arts will endure for they educate and inspire. They are art forms born of a guild tradition that brought forth matchless beauty from press beds beaded in sweat and perfumed by mineral spirits.

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