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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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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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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Building a Drawdio

Last evening I went to RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) to see Mark Frauenfelder, and Carla Sinclair speak about the "maker movement" going on now. This morning, Mark brought some kits from The Maker SHED — the store for MAKE Magazine's products — to share with The RIT Make Club. Although I just wanted to hang out to see how basic the Learn to Solder Kit really was, I couldn't resist[*] trying to build the Drawdio Kit. With it, you draw a line with a pencil then use the line to change the pitch the Drawdio emits — the line acts as a resistor to complete the oscillator circuit [* har har]. I finished it up pretty quick, and got back that old feeling of how nice it was to build a project from a kit that, well, just worked. If I remember correctly, 4 people were also building the Drawdio's and they all got them working.

Anyway, the Learn to Solder Kit was pretty nice. The circuit board has some extra pads so you can learn to melt and work with solder before going on to build the basic circuit. Mark had also brought several Super TV-B-Gone Kits which were very popular because they were more than just toys, they were actually useful (for turning off nearly any television by sequencing through all the known TV power-button codes).

In all it was a really nice experience. Mary Lynn Broe organized this as part of The Caroline Werner Gannett Project which brings together "21st century thinkers and scholars in the arts, sciences and technologies who ask the unasked questions." Hopefully we can build from this to get people who make things together, as well as the people who don't make things yet.

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