Seeing Alison Bechdel Speak at RIT

Although I also wanted to go see Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars at the Dryden, I opted for the irreproducible Caroline Werner Gannett Project lecture at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) with Alison Bechdel. In all honesty, I know practically nothing about Bechdel, instead relying on my faith that the lecture series draws interesting people (perhaps TEDx Rochester could learn a few things.)

Anyway, she's a cartoonist — a self-described not-very-good writer and not-very-good artist that combine to form a rather excellent cartoonist. Her lecture was titled Drawing Words, Reading Pictures. If you had heard of her before, it's likely as a "lesbian cartoonist" with a long-running strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, or perhaps the misattributed Bechdel test for movies (conceived by her friend Liz Wallace and documented in a strip in 1985 … or so Wikipedia says).

She went into great detail about how she constructed one strip and quipped that you just need to repeat that a thousand times or so to make a book. She spoke a lot about her childhood, dovetailing into her most recent book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She spoke about her journal as a child where she began to realize that words alone were not adequate to relate an idea, adding small "I think" bubbles in sentences wherever meaning could be ambiguous. Later she started using a large caret-like gesture (^ only bigger) through words, and eventually discovered she could "protect a whole page" with one overlying notation. This eventually led her to using the comic form as a way to reduce ambiguity.

I was thoroughly excited by this notation. A growing panic and frustration develops inside me whenever I begin to discuss the utter inadequateness stemming from the bleeding ambiguity in language. I mean, "the sky is blue" makes perfect sense even though there are clouds that are part of the sky, or it might be the night sky, and blue … wow … I assure you it's not blue like my old Ford Escort which was also blue. So, stealing Bechdel's notation in typographic form, "the ^sky^ is ^blue^" makes much more sense to me. I had to ask if she finds that ambiguity relieved by cartooning (which she did) but I was more surprised at her surprise that I felt that way too. They had microphones up front, and when I was addressing her she probably took two steps back when I relayed essentially what I just wrote.

As such, I felt a kindred connection. I deduced who she was prior to the lecture (an easy task even though I'd never seen her photograph) and had felt that a bit already. I was warmed by the way she stepped partway up the auditorium to observe how the stage and computer projector were set up. And I was amused at a male crew-member gingerly adjusting her lapel microphone as if he were defusing a bomb.

In any case, I bought her book and had a chance to meet her and have her sign it. She even "^" notated my name and sketched her face with a cartoon bubble, "what is Jason really saying?", then with a wry smile added below, "we might never know." [Curiously, I recalled it from memory as "what is Jason saying really?", and "we may never know."]

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book. What I'm finding is that the cartoon format doesn't resolve ambiguity as much as it amplifies the ambiguous parts of the text. So like that "^" notation, it's another way to say, "this is how I think it happened, but you're never going to get it."

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Attending TEDx Rochester

I headed to Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the TEDx Rochester lectures today. I attended the premiere year last year, and hoped for a few improvements. Many were met, and some surprising updates, but I still found it fell short.

Registration was easy and our passes had a little surprise. I hadn't realized until I was approached by Chris Horn — a former co-worker — who pointed out that on the back of our passes, we had a list of three people. His said, "Ask Jason Olshefsky about a 'tadpole trike'," a project I mentioned when I had originally signed up. I thought it a near-perfect ice-breaker (although, in general most attendees migrated to people they already knew … this is Rochester, after all). A curious serendipity was that the other person who found me by name was another former co-worker from a different company. People speculated that TEDxRochester did some Internet snooping, but I was pretty sure it was just random.

Anyway, the presentations were generally good although only a couple approached the lofty goal of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading. One of my college techniques was to take virtually no notes, expending my effort listening and thinking and referring later to reference materials. To my [mild, mild] horror, the brochure listed the presenters alphabetically with biographies rather than a title (or even a taste) of what their presentation was about. Thank goodness for TEDx Rochester Live blogging or else I'd have no idea who said what in what order.

Kicking off was Almeta Whitis who presented a "song of welcome". I found it enjoyable and impressive that she inspired me and most of the audience to join her in the chorus. An idea worth spreading? Yes — in a very unique way. She attacked the issue warmly, honestly, and with a flair for entertainment: we are all human and should behave as such. In essence, "it's the humanity, stupid", not the iPhone nor the pressing project.

Next was Dr. Benjamin Miller. He talked about detection of proteins and antibodies as markers for disease and how new technology works to do that instantly with silicon chips. His broad topic was one of understanding through a triangular diagram of vision (our ability to observe), direction (a selected methodology of exploration), and control (a defined set of target results) — essentially, a subtly different view of the scientific method. As such, technically an "idea worth spreading" but one that is spread pretty far and wide already, particularly to the largely technical-minded audience attending. I also noted a severe defect: he presented an underlying assumption (the "protein-interaction problem can be solved by drugs") was one that can be questioned. Why is that the best path? Or is that the most logical one — the one that is most likely to yield results that are easy to fit into the model of scientific exploration? Alas, I feel a far more interesting talk would have discussed that question.

Karlie Robinson spoke next. She owns Webpath Technologies (40 Charles Ave., Henrietta). She talked about how hard it is to find courses in basic computer literacy. She gave the example of how we all know basic operations (cut, copy, paste, undo) are similar across all kinds of different computer systems — something we take completely for granted but which is really a pivotally important idea. Like Miller's discussion, this one is sort-of an "idea worth spreading": more "a problem whose solution is an idea worth spreading". And (also like Miller's discussion) I found myself dismayed at ignorance of the underlying assumption: that technology is a good thing and should continue to be applied all the time. A more interesting discussion would concern why menial labor can't simply show up, work, and get paid — what value have we added by tracking names, addresses, Social Security numbers, pay, and taxes. Is this really optimal?

I think Darren Stevenson (co-founder of PUSH Physical Theatre) gave one of the best discussions. He started with a demonstration of a performance then went on to define what art is. At least that was his topic which he attacked with wit, humor, and insight. His point was that creating and experiencing art is subjective and personal. Our culture tries to make everything objective and communal — to give things dollar-values and quality-values that everyone can agree upon. However, art is defies that very notion. It even defies explanation, another facet of our culture: we try to explain everything in words because explanations make things safe; things we understand are safe. We don't look at an autumn tree [how creative, Jayce: did you just look out the window?] and try to understand "what is the tree trying to tell us?" It just is, and we can enjoy it for that. Yet somehow when it's a creation of man, we feel it must be a simple metaphor instead.

The bar was set high at the start — three very good discussions. Then Jane Andrews, a Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager for Wegmans Food Markets (1500 Brooks Ave.) gave a commercial for Wegmans. Ok, so it wasn't literally a commercial — she was talking about the techniques developed at Wegmans to foster good nutrition. My own bitter bias about Wegmans and how they abandoned the city neighborhoods (especially mine) led me to ask the underlying assumption: "why do only rich suburbanites deserve good nutrition?" Regardless, the ideas she presented were good ideas run through the hot-dog factory of marketing so they'd be palatable to the general public, such as "split your plate": fill half with salad, then have whatever else you want on the other half. Unfortunately, it's extraordinarily similar to the "small plate" movement (such as outlined in the 2008 book The 9-Inch Diet by Alex M. Bogusky.) Alas, I couldn't tell if the "idea worth spreading" was "here's some ways to eat better for the simpleton", or "Wegmans, gosh, isn't it great?"

Moka Lantum, co-founder of The Baobab Cultural Center (728 University Ave., formerly on Gregory St.) spoke next. Although his presentation style was not nearly as polished, his idea was one that I felt warranted TED: in areas with that have a high prevalence of earthquakes, we should build homes that are locally-sourced and earthquake-stable. The underlying assumption of earthquake relief efforts is that they help — but is there a better way? Lantum impressed me by attacking that very question — and again with broader scope, "is there a better building technique than the platform-framed wood houses we take for granted?" Lantum outlines a building technique that uses bags filled with local, sifted dirt for the primary structure then covered with a locally-generated stucco-like surface. The high thermal mass works well to regulate temperature, particularly in hotter climates like Haiti where these structures were given a test as temporary emergency shelters. I thought his topic was perfect TED material: it's something that I've thought about before, and I can't think off-hand of a way to significantly improve upon the presented solution. (My only lament is that he didn't say where to find more information; a little searching leads me to an article on The Honey House which I believe is the specific technique Lantum was talking about.)

Next was Shanterra Randle, an associate coordinator at The Center for Teen Empowerment (107 Liberty Pole Wy.) Her speech could easily have been a free-form poem. She encouraged us to take the ideas we have and hear, and put them out there — to make our community better. We all have good ideas, but a good idea laid dormant is just as good as no idea at all. Another worthy candidate for what TED is all about, and as a bonus, brief, creative, and directed.

Dr. Ralph Spezio gave an impassioned and emotional lecture on his experiences as principal of School 17 and how lead poisoning was revealed as the cause of educational problems in his school. If there's one thing to take away from his speech, it's to consider the possibility that when assessing the quality of education, sometimes great teachers and great parenting is not enough. Likewise, Michelle Cardulla presented her work as Executive Director of The Museum of Kids Art (MOKA) (90 Webster Ave.) I felt her presentation could have been better rehearsed, and the idea that kids are natural artists could have been more central. Clarinetist Dr. Ramon Ricker presented an interesting topic of making your life about you and your skills. He was largely talking about marketing yourself in terms of what you are good at and what you like to do rather than what you think other people want to hear. It may have resonated more with others, but me (and I think a lot of people in the audience) were already aware.

Jim Tappon, Communications Manager of COOL Rochester gave a commercial for COOL Rochester. He spent as much time talking about vague methods to conserve energy as he did talking about how you can download information and present it to your friends and acquaintances. I think his idea of conservation through small steps is generally good, but his insistence that we become the carriers of this information à la pyramid scheme was downright offensive.

Finishing up, Jen Indovina, President and CEO of Tenrehte Technologies, presented the nearly opposite view: that it is impossible for people to change their behavior in any appreciable way, so we should make technology that lets us live exactly as we do, only makes it efficient. I found it patently offensive that adaptation is impossible, and further offensive that more products can make things efficient. As someone with a custom remote system to control lights and such, I can tell you it's nearly impossible to make a machine that can predict your behavior and not irritate the hell out of you. To buy something off-the-shelf that would work is an absurd concept. I tried to do some research on the products at the Tenrehte Technologies website, but all the products and catch-phrases presented on the website appear to be nothing more than vaporware marketing-speak: there is not even a description of what anything does, much less any technical information. Without a physical address, I can't fathom how any production is taking place, and I'm strongly suspicious that the whole company is just a scam.

As such, I left this year's TEDx Rochester in a thoroughly pissed-off rush. Walking home, I could only think fo Indovina and her insistence that we can't change our behavior; if I were driving a car I'd have classic road-rage. Thankfully I headed into Mt. Hope Cemetery (791 Mt. Hope Ave., the North Gate) and got a chance to chill out before getting home.

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Bill Forsyth After an End to Housekeeping

I couldn't attend the screening of Local Hero yesterday, but I did make it to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Housekeeping. Writer/director Bill Forsyth — lucky for me — stayed an extra day for this screening and for a question-and-answer session afterward.

Anyway, the film is excellent and human like Forsyth's other films, but also just a bit disconcerting. It's the story of Ruth and Lucy, orphans who get bounced through the family lineage until they are cared for by their Aunt Sylvie, but what makes it disconcerting is how I was forced to judge Sylvie: are her actions eccentric, insane, misplaced, enlightening, or harmful?

She goes just a little "too far" with what would otherwise be just personality traits — for instance, finding old newspapers useful, but collecting them to an obsessive degree (and yet, she also seems perfectly able to part with them). On the one hand, that kind of thriftiness could prove useful in a time of scarcity, especially when compared with one who is wasteful. On the other hand, she doesn't seem to be making conscious effort to drive her life, allowing whatever whim suits her to guide her.

I found the question-and-answer session afterward to be enlightening, revealing Forsyth as a modest fellow who wasn't particularly driven to make films, yet ended up producing work that is warm, unique, and expertly-made.

I had been tipped off before the film that he might go on to socialize with some of the Eastman House staff afterward, but I forgot.  I intended to join a couple friends on the staff to walk with them until they got to their house, but when they went instead to The Strathallan (550 East Ave.) I considered excusing myself out of courtesy as I hadn't been invited, but I decided instead to leave it up to those who were there to ask me to leave if they so wished.

The conversation was fun and interesting as one might expect. We had some laughs and talked about movies, people, and the state of the world. Ordinarily I wouldn't think of myself as excessively brash, but next to the quiet gentle wisdom of Forsyth and the woman he traveled here with (who I assumed is his wife), I felt like some loud-mouthed, opinionated, know-it-all, American stereotype.

On the actual walk home with my friends, we talked about some of the quirky people and their unusual mannerisms. One example is a guy who supposedly couldn't get Forsyth's traveling companion's name right — yet we also know that he's said he has Asperger syndrome, so his unusual behavior is somehow acceptable. Another case was a friend whose palpable social discomfort was given attention in friendly mockery — yet since we know of no diagnosed disorder, it was somehow acceptable to do so.

In the film, Sylvie's behavior was likewise dead-center in the gray/grey area between unusual and insane. Why is there a difference in how we react to someone we know has a psychological problem versus another who acts the same but is not diagnosed? One's individual reaction to any other person is certainly unique, and perhaps it's the "political correctness" drummed into our psyches that causes a reactionary rift between those afflicted by a proper disorder and others who are not. If that's the case, then perhaps the best course of action is to assume everyone you meet is somehow disabled and should be treated cordially nonetheless.

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Watching Dirt

I headed to the WXXI Studio (280 State St.) to see Dirt: the Movie. It was part of the WXXI Community Cinema series which includes a couple more screenings in the coming months. Although you can see Dirt: the Movie yourself on April 20 on TV, you miss out on the panel discussion afterward. To be perfectly frank, the panel was biased toward the statement of the movie: that dirt is an essential, living part of plant and animal life on this planet. As such, there were no experts from Monsanto to provide a counterpoint to sustainable, organic farming (you may notice that I'm also biased and lean toward the message in the film).

So anyway, the film. It's basically an essay film that argues that dirt is, as I said before, an essential, living part of plant and animal life on this planet. Some cute animations and a half-dozen or so talking-heads plays into the standard structure for such a film. I don't recall whether it mentioned how much of today's food comes from non-natural farming techniques, but since I figure it's a large percentage, I think that's an important fact to remember. The film spends more time highlighting the efforts of CSA farms — "Community Sponsored Agriculture" — that provides a counterpoint to the debt-based system we've attempted to apply to farming. The overall message is that the artificial structures we've created that are supposed to increase farming efficiency and feed us all are not sustainable in the long-run, and we must develop a sustainable model if we are to not go extinct.

Now, about that "debt-based system". In modern farming, farm owners are expected to have capital up-front to buy seed and equipment they need at the beginning of the season; they recoup their expenses by selling their crops throughout the year. Typically they will get a loan — often a mortgage — for those initial expenses and hope to pay it back. However, forces of nature and market forces play a huge role and a farmer may not be able to match their upfront expenses. CSA's do away with the risk associated with a loan because members of the farm pay dues up-front to pay for the crop, distribute the risk of farming, and result in farmers not going into debt.

Anyway, they also gave out door prizes and I won a DVD set of New York Wine and Table along with a coupon for Patty Love to perform a consultation on "permaculture" in my back yard. I was trying to decide whether to join the CSA at Mud Creek Farm (McMahon Rd., Victor), so I took it as a sign and (once I pay my taxes) I'll buy myself a membership. I have felt the push to start getting into farming and sustainability — I think I'm going to start paying less attention to my technical skills and start focusing on more plain, traditional techniques and steer toward laziness through innovation.

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Attending the Circulator Study Meeting by C&S

I found some time and stopped by The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) for the presentation of a Center City Circulator Feasibility Study for Rochester by C&S Companies. They are surveying employees and full-time residents of the area inside the Inner Loop to determine if a circulator (a short, fixed transit route for moving people around a small area) is feasible. They presented the current survey results and asked for suggestions which they wrote on two large easels.

Their results indicated that they were surveying people on how they presently commuted to downtown. The vast majority (some 80%) drove alone in a car and used a parking lot. They unfortunately included Kodak so the results skew strongly toward Kodak's behaviors.

More importantly, though, they seemed genuinely mired in the car-plenty, cheap-fuel, 1960's thinking that inspired the city's infrastructure. For instance, I was met with surprise when I suggested they examine the possibility of removing automobiles from the area in the Inner Loop, serving it only through a circulator and foot-traffic, perhaps starting with a trial area. My thinking is that fuel costs and the costs associated with a car-culture are going to increase, and it would be wise to examine options that look past the status quo. It becomes a question of whether we want to be more like Denver or more like Palmyra.

Most of the suggestions from others revolved around providing free parking (so I suspect C&S's presentation to the City will strongly endorse free parking). I thought it unprofessional to watch one of the camera crews recommend that the media should be able to park with impunity without being ticketed. I'm not surprised on either front. In the first case, if you ask people what they want, they will start from what they know; it will take leadership to create a better situation that is not simply more of the past. In the second case, I have been nothing but appalled at the lack of quality in television news, and this is just more of the same.

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Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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TEDx Rochester

I know I've mentioned TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading quite a few times already, so when I heard there would be an independently-originated series here in Rochester, I couldn't help but go. They called it TEDx Rochester and held it at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) My hopes were high, but I fully understood that not every lecturer would produce an astoundingly favorite lecture.

After a rocky start with the A/V system, Adam Frank got things started. He spoke about the artificiality of the conflict of science and religion. Basically his argument was that science enhances religion because it lets us see more of the world, and if you're a believer in a creator, seeing more of what was created is a good thing.

Larry Moss was next, speaking about his "Airigami": creating art with balloons. At first blush, the whole thing seems as thin as a metaphor using balloons would be if written here. But because the medium he uses is so accessible, he's able to create sculptures with people who don't even share a common language — and he has. Many times. On the one hand, it's astounding and on another, obvious. Definitely one to think about (and hopefully, a lecture that will be prominent on TED's own website).

I was also pleased by a performance by GEOMANTICS Dance Theatre who, like PUSH Physical Theatre, used an amalgam of the varied forms of physical performance to express ideas.

A nano-scale chemist and physicist Todd D. Krauss provided insight into some of his work (as several other lecturers did). Although I didn't find that his talk met my lofty expectation of an "idea worth spreading", he did bring up an interesting bit of new technology: cadmium-selenium nanoparticles. The fascinating thing about them is that they fluoresce different colors of light based on their size. As such, one can create whatever colors they want using the same material.

What he did not touch on that I wish he had was the ramifications of nanoparticles and organic life: specifically, isn't "little particles stuck through cell walls" one of those triggers for cancer? And while he dispelled the myth that artificially-intelligent nanobots will kill us, I think he did a disservice by neglecting to even approach the topic of nanoparticles doing damage in much more banal ways.

Finishing up the night was Geva Comedy ImprovMySpace link who, sadly, were not able to finish their performance in the time allotted.

Overall it was definitely worth it to take time off to see it. But I hope that in the future, things are a bit more refined.

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Stefan Sagmeister at RIT

I thought 15 minutes was sufficiently early to arrive, but by the time I got to the The Caroline Werner Gannett Project, Ingle Auditorium at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) was completely full and I had to watch a video-feed with another 60-or-so people in the 1829 Room next door. Designer Stefan Sagmeister was the speaker and he did indeed discuss Design and Happiness. You can get an idea of what the discussion was like through his similar TED lecture from a few years ago: Stefan Sagmeister shares happy design.

As I had expected, the lecture gave me some inspiration. I knew Sagmeister would comment on the tenuous balance of being creative — after all, he closes his design studio for a year in every five years to do non-work-related endeavors.

His observations on happiness reminded me of that which I often forget: that much of happiness is a temporary feeling. He divided it up into three layers: short-lived joy, mid-ranged satisfaction from accomplishment, and long-term fulfillment from pride in one's life. I forget that happiness at one layer is not experienced the same as at other layers: although my life philosophy has generally kept me fulfilled, that does not make me feel joyful in and of itself.

His lecture also reminded me that good design matters. It's good to have a world where we can feel pleasure, and we can feel pleasure from interacting with something well-designed. And by that, I mean everything. Like I think the Frederick Douglass — Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge (formerly the Troup-Howell Bridge) is a good design: it carries vehicles across the river just as effectively as a bridge that looks awful, but it has a certain elegance to its design that makes people feel good. On the other hand, The Monroe Community Hospital (435 E. Henrietta Rd.) is apparently having a chain-link fence erected around it: an ugly barrier that says, "we have problems with the likes of you entering our property" and makes people feel bad. And to think that everything in the world can effect a mood like that: wow.

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Andy Lock at Eastman House

I went to see Andy Lock speak about his Orchard Park: Utopia's Ghosts exhibit at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) He said that he thought the Eastman House presentation was the best he's seen, capturing the essence of the work. The exhibit is a series of images taken at a housing project called Orchard Park just prior to its demolition; from there, he projected them onto a wall of glow-in-the-dark paint and photographed the fading result. The green tint of the paint gives it a "radioactive" feel and evidence of brushstrokes in the phosphorescent paint gives it a pastoral feel as well.

Thematically, I agree that it captures the notion of "idealism lost" — that these buildings were made to provide some kind of idealized housing to folks, but as the buildings aged, that veneer was worn off completely, leaving the stark reality of really quite basic housing. Plus, the exploration of modern ruins is a running theme in modern photography.

Since he had explored this subject so deeply, I asked him why the ephemera was so exciting while the actual inhabitants probably were not? — that an artist will seldom have interest in the people who lived there, yet be fascinated by the vague shadows of their existence.  He said that the appeal is that we can project ourselves into a fantasy of what was rather than the detailed reality of what is. So, for instance, when a couple chairs are placed at odd angles to one another, they tell a certain kind of story, but there was probably little similarity between the placement of the chairs and the relationship of the people who used them.

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Maira Kalman at RIT

I headed to RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) to see Maira Kalman speak as part of The Caroline Werner Gannett Project. As far as I can tell, she's a respected artist who generally paints with a feeling of childlike innocent observation. The title of her talk was Just Looking — and I understood that to refer to the act of looking without distraction, without thinking, and without judging. Her discussion was very similar to her TED Lecture, "Maira Kalman, the illustrated woman" in case you'd like to see for yourself.

Overall I found her to be charming, witty, and kind-of irritating. She's has a disarming self-defacing kind of demeanor at this lecture — for instance, she referred to her art as "just a side thing", claiming that cleaning is her main task in life. I felt as though she gets a lot of credit for observing the small things in life that go unnoticed by the seeming majority of people. And that group, I think, finds her observations incredibly fascinating. But I, well — not so much. This kind of observation is not particularly new to me, and pretty integral to my way of life.

She also seemed to take great pride in not knowing anything — something I disliked on two levels.

First, I think it's a philosophy that attracts bad communists. By that, I mean that there is a certain kind of person who has little in the way of skills, but who feels entitled to be cared for by others. And by skills, I mean not only job-worthy skills of the day, but basic functional survival skills.

In this day and age, it's somewhat irrelevant, because despite what people who write books about winning say, this is a plentiful age. As such, "survival of the fittest" is not relevant today — we're in the equilibrium between the punctuating of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. It's only during those times of dramatic hardship that hoarding and winning against your neighbor is necessary.

And so these people are not "entitled" but "lucky". True: there is a certain amount of luck to surviving when a volcano erupts and causes a tremendous change in the world's climate, but knowing how to purify water, prepare food, and build reliable shelter are things that would shift your chances of surviving. "Knowing nothing" won't help you nearly as much.

Second, the whole claim to "not knowing" is a lie. She knows full well how to observe, how to paint, how to filter the finest grains of the world — all things that show in her work. I think her point might be that "knowing" is not the be-all, end-all of existence. "Doing" is another significant part of a rewarding life — for "doing" is the only success there is; "not doing" the only failure.

But by focusing on the "not knowing", there is another kind of person who irritates me who embraces that meme: those who argue that knowledge is a folly. They're frequently also lousy communists, but occasionally they're just philosophers who are too deep in the rabbit hole. The basis for their argument is irrefutable: you cannot predict the future. If you can't predict the future, then any knowledge is barely a guess as to what's going to happen — so why try with this whole "knowing" thing at all when it's just a recording of the way things happened before?

It would be a disturbing day indeed if I had a basket of six apples and put three more in, only to find there were now 4,388 apples in the basket. But until that day, there will be nine apples in the basket. So as long as metal conducts electricity, and gravity is pretty much constant, and I can catch a ball, and the Internet does what the Internet did, I'll stick with knowing.

The trick, I think — and my interpretation of Kalman's talk — is to be able to turn it all off. It's a fascinating exercise to see the world not as objects in space, but as strangely behaving colors and shapes. To look at a tree and just see it as a trunk that splits and splits and splits ultimately into tiny twigs is good. To live in that world of wonder all the time … eh, not so much.

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