Thinking the Unthinkable

This weekend Jenn and I took a trip to visit her parents in Garrettsville. It was quiet little weekend. We got in late Friday night as we usually do, traveling from Pittsburgh via the Turnpike. The sunset was especially glorious that night. Clouds tipped with fluorescent pink.

On Saturday, Jenn and Joyce went out to Goodwill, as they are want to do. The thrift store goods shown their light on Jenn. She found pair after pair of pants, exactly her size. Great brands. All for around $3 each. Ace. I spent some time walking around outside while they were gone. I poked around in the garden. Joyce’s garden is bursting, though a little overgrown at the moment, it’s full of life. In the nearby coop she has new chickens that she and her neighbor have been incorporating into their flock. They seem to be getting on well. Saturday saw 5 eggs. Sunday just 1.

While they were out, I watched an incredible talk presented by Bret Victor at the MIT Media Lab in 2013. It was called “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable“. It was recommended by my friend Max Krieger, who is a current undergraduate in Mathematics at CMU. It was amazing.

The big take away was the inspiration of thinking about looking and creating for new tools to express and capture the systems that we use notation systems to represent. Computers allow us to create dynamic, interactive system representations that can adapt to our modifications. Real Time. And in the playing around with these models, we gain intuitions about the system that are invisible to us. These depictions expand what we can understand and make the unthinkable suddenly thinkable. (Needless to say this makes my mind immediately jump to thinking of Lynda Barry’s Writing the Unthinkable talks.)

Just as we augment the range of our observable reality via microscopes, telescopes, infrared and UV light detection, we can augment the range of our thinkable reality by rethinking how we represent the world.

I mention all of this because earlier int the day I had read an article on the first anatomically accurate mathematical model that explains how vision is possible.Max had recommended Victor’s talk after I shared my initial impressions of this article via Instagram. It’s a model that recognizes how we can create such seemingly rich visual depictions of the world in our mind despite there only being just 10 or so nerve cells that connect the retina to the visual cortex.

Not only are Lateral Genticulate Nucleus cells scarce — they can’t do much either. LGN cells send a pulse to the visual cortex when they detect a change from dark to light, or vice versa, in their tiny section of the visual field. And that’s all. The lighted world bombards the retina with data, but all the brain has to go on is the meager signaling of a tiny collection of LGN cells. To see the world based on so little information is like trying to reconstruct Moby-Dick from notes on a napkin.

In essence, the world that you “see” is a reconstruction that your mind is just making up. We are creating representational models of the world. What is the process of this reconstruction? What abstractions are used to model it in our mind’s eye?

Unsurprisingly I started to think about comics, especially along a framework of Expanded Comics as Kim Jooha has recently invited contemporary makers and readers to think along. Why comics? Why do we care about them and why do they keep appearing with us as mode across human history?

I’m convinced that comics are attractive to us as a mode of expression because they allow our eyes to read images that line up with the mental models that we create for how to see the world. Think of cartoons as diagrams of our existing, procedural abstractions of the world. And comics sequences as visual abstractions of how we model the passage of time in our minds.

Why do we cartoon the way we do? Is there a biological reason for it? I believe so. I believe that comics offer us a mirror to see an expression of the tendencies and limits of our biology. This is not to say other forms of culture don’t allow for that, but just that comics are especially equipped to help us see how we see.  Comics, in my mind, happens to be an egalitarian stage of expression that allows for us as individuals and also as a society to make high level abstractions with accessible, immediate tools and technologies. This mode cuts across race and class on Earth. All you need is a mark making tool and a surface to make marks on.

Comics help us see how we are collectively and individually seeing, most notably how we experience space and time.

I feel this ties into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in some way but I can’t articulate it at the moment… The concept of Linguistic Relativity is extremely controversial, so I’m not making any claims this way or that. Just that there’s something here. It’s something that I would like to explore. Unlike the strong hypothesis in Linguistic Relativism, that says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, I believe there’s a flex and flow with it all. Taking up the idea of Visual Language, there’s an inevitable creep of signifier and signified relationships. These relationships can morph due to accidental depiction in drawings that inevitably shift how we see what we see. I hope that makes sense. We depict via representation, but we also wind up abstracting, simplifying, transforming. These transformations, accidental or intentional in turn have an influence in how we see what we were depicting when we experience it in the future. This is a powerful quality of the back and forth between the world and the model of the world that we build with language, one that can be seen extremely vividly in the use of racial caricature. Needless to say I need to think about this more.

Pulling back, though, comics and cartooning endlessly amaze me as I see them as an accessible, evolutionary rich linguistic lens onto our cognitive apparatus through our very cognition.

So that’s where my mind was Saturday. Joyce and Jenn came home. We had a comforting dinner of macaroni and cheese. We stepped out with Jeff to enjoy the cool late August air with a fire. In the garden by the chicken coop.

It was nice.

Up all night

It’s difficult to get things done after work as an adult.

And I want to do so much. I need to do so much. This isn’t me being overly ambitious. I need to do so much if I want to be able to change the material conditions of my life and those of those around me.

Capitalism is a bloodthirsty vampire. It wants all of me. It sucks. The society we live in is trying to extract as much out of me as a worker and consumer as it can, and in that extraction there is so little room to breathe. It doesn’t have to be this way. But at the moment the self perpetuating system that benefits few at the cost of many wants to keep it that way.

There’s so much I want to learn how to do and so much I want to just experience. But there’s so little time to take care of myself and Jenn outside of work. Let alone rest.

In this current battle and hunt for time I’m reminded of my anxieties as they relate to time, time management and rest, or lack there of, when I was in college.

When I was at Carnegie Mellon University I would stay up all night all too often. I don’t know why that was. Naturally, I wasn’t awake all night, rather I resisted going to bed, going back to my apartment. I spent many of my nights at the University Library or the campus radio station. Its definitely a bad habit I developed around other Carnegie Mellon students, with their sleep deprivation competition. I would stay up until I ebbed in and out of waking. Cloudy half finished sentences on a screen. Cryptic calculations on homework. It was a bad habit.

It was a habit that had me exhausted during the day and essentially drunk off of sleep deprivation. The internet played a big role in this as it would be “open for business” all night. Yet, even that space got quiet and I was left with my own thoughts. It got really lonely.

Part of my fears was that if I genuinely went to sleep, I didn’t know if I could wake up when I needed to. I doubted I could make my morning commitments. In truth I knew that my body and mind were so tired that if I did go to bed properly I wouldn’t wake up in time. I had a track record of it. And that grounded my anxieties. So I found myself “resting” along that razor’s edge of drowsy wakefulness.

Throughout this period there were only 2 moments that I was concerned with: tomorrow, after tomorrow.

I could understand tomorrow. I could understand it’s scope. Short term frantic action planning for the next day. I was young and I could manage it. For the most part. Clearly I was running on empty but I could pull from some strange reserves to keep moving and keep most things in the air. Until I couldn’t. Unfortunately working this way meant that it was always a serious of scurried today’s planning for tomorrow’s that snuck up on me.

I didn’t know how to think past tomorrow: After tomorrow caused me a lot of anxiety. I had no control of it. I couldn’t manage the scope of the work that needed to be done to make things ready for after tomorrow. I couldn’t calculate how much inconvenience it would be to have 2 deadlines and and event to attend on the same day when it was happening after tomorrow. Friends suggested I use google calendar, or keep a daily planner. I tried both but it never worked. I could stick to a single system they documented the future and commitments. Because of these continued failures I kept on focusing on tomorrow and just letting the future become tomorrow and deal with it as it came. Clearly there are things that can’t be overcome with a single days notice: projects, exams, family plans, applying to jobs, etc. I couldn’t overcome these things and I wound up burnt, burnt out once the youthful energy evaporated.

I wonder about the damage that I caused my body during this time. Did I do brain damage moving through the world in that sleep deprived delirium?What’s done is done.

I have a hard time having clear memories of this time. Stitching the timeline of the years 2008-2013 is difficult. Granted, it seems that my memory is not generally nearly as clear or vivid as that of others. Especially those of childhood. It is what it is.

It’s 2019 and things have gotten better. A lot better. In the next post I’ll write about the things that happened between 2013-2019 that brought me back into alignment. Until then though, I want to leave you with a deeply comforting poem by the late Mary Oliver, Wild Geese. This beloved poem touches on several of the ideas that helped me heal psychologically, physically and spiritually. I’ll dig into them next time. Until then, I hope you enjoy it and find some light in it.

Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver

With love,

Juan

Back in the Saddle

I’m back on campus at Carnegie Mellon University. Can you believe it? It’s really strange to be back here. I rode the bus from where I live, in Greenfield, and to my surprise I wound up catching the ending of the Freshman Orientation Event. There were hordes of 18 year olds. Loud, overly peppy, semi-euro sounding pop. Bright lights, big sounds.

I was hoping to get to the Hunt Library after work, but alas, it seems that they aren’t open late this week. During the school year they are open 24-hours a day. It’s a little unhealthy… But it is good to have a space like that here, where people will wind up all night anyway.

What am I doing here at CMU? Research on Visual Language Theory.  I’m exploring it’s intersection with comics and seeing if I can create a thoroughly researched treatise on how comics can or cannot manifest the things that we expect traditional notions of language to do. Embedding clauses, representing epistemic knowledge, indirect reference, indexicality, among other things!

At the moment I’m trying to accumulate a big pile of research materials. Among these materials are core linguistic texts to re-establish my footing as it pertains to syntax, morphology, and semantics. More on this research soon.

Things were really quiet at work. It seems that there are many big changes underway where I work, despite the workdays being relatively calm. Jenn is doing good. She’s working on an a t-shirt design that we will be selling online soon for Comics Workbook. We did a lot of meal prep yesterday so it was a calm night eating together and watching a little TV.

I’ve started listening to Brian McCollough’s Internet History Podcast. The narratives between the oil, rail and steel barons + the colonial conquest of the world by Europe and the capitalization of early structures on the web. Claim the land. Rent the land. Rule the land by economics… Relatively unformed thoughts right now, as I’m only up to at Netscape’s 1995 IPO.

talk to you soon. take good care of yourself, now.

What a mess.

This blog is such a mess. The category organization is a mess. The tags are a mess. Mess. Mess. Mess.

And yet, it’s still here. That’s comforting. It’s nice to still be here.

That said, I’m changing things up a little. From this point on this is just going to be a 100% catchall blog, channelling the spirit of the early 00’s. This used to be a space for me to put out things related to my comics making and exploration of the medium, but that bandwidth is too narrow. I think about too many things nowadays. I can’t stay on a single topic for too long. I have more to say.
(That said, visual language and self-authorization of expression via drawing and publishing of comics and zines and jpegs and gifs and pngs is something that I engage with practically every day.)

So, some updates:

Since last fall I’ve been quietly at the helm of Comics Workbook. I had been assisting Frank Santoro with the site and social media starting in 2015 as the mouth piece of his Rowhouse Residency project and his Correspondence Course for Comics Makers. This work started when Frank and I created the Pittsburgh Comics Salon and launched the Kickstarter to buy the house next to his in Swissvale to create the Rowhouse Residency.

Last year, and things leading up to then found Frank’s life was going in a different direction than what the Comics Workbook project needed, so after 6 years of manning the ship. I saw this as an opportunity to lighten his load and to launch a vision for a comics making hub. We talked and he conferred control of it to me.

I took some time and put the whole project on hiatus, publicly. Up to that point, a core crew of volunteers: Caleb Orecchio, Sally Ingraham, Aaron Cocklere and myself had been running a daily blog where we wrangled up as much interesting information from the world of comics, art, commerce and technology that intersected with comics and visual language. It was a monster of a Daily News project. Sometimes we’d write short essays, or reviews of things we were reading about it. It was awesome, but tiring. I hope to bring a practice like that back to the new website.

The hiatus was good. It was the first time I really let something rest. To dutifully nap. In that nap there were dreams that I kept returning too. I allowed myself to wander through the landscapes of those dreams as they pertained to Comics Workbook and I found a feeling that I wanted to manifest, that I wanted other people to experience when they made, read or learned about comics and visual language. That was the spirit from which the new Comics Workbook was born.

In early 2019 I set to work with Pablo Selin to restructure the existing website, http://www.comicsworkbook.com. After some extensive thinking, we landed on a nice structure that allowed us to organically grown and tend to a new digital body of comics knowledge, this time focused on the art and the creators of that art, real time.

At Comics Workbook we are testing a new type of learning space for comics-making.

Through the publishing of comics, essays, reviews, interviews and tutorials we hope to expand the known limits of the comics medium.

We are committed to:

  • creating a hub for comics-making and writing about comics-making that emphasizes the healthy growth and development of its contributors and readers.
  • nurturing an exciting cultural space for makers by makers.
  • investing in the exploration of the comics medium as a vital community form, evolving from its 20th-21st century existence as a commodity form

I’m using social media to motivate new and aspiring makers to create comics and share them, while also boosting the signals of contemporary makers that may need support in building their audiences. Above all I am trying to create a space that is for makers by makers. I do not feel that such a space exists, and for my own sake, I would like it to exist. I believe it will help others.

What else?

Jenn and I are getting married next year. We are excitedly, though overwhelmingly, planning a wedding for next June. Because Jenn and I don’t have very much money, and these things, well they cost money, we’re working hard to figure out effective, cost efficient ways to bring family and friends together next year. Whatever it takes, I want this to be a joyful union of family and friends celebrating the love and trust that Jenn and I have in each other. Loving Jenn and being loved by her has been a life changing experience. More on that in future posts.

This Fall I’m preparing to leave my job at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and to dive into coding. I’ve talked with my supervisors and they are flexible in allowing me to take classes while I am working. I will have to go part time so I will need to figure out how my healthcare coverage will be handled… but that’s a logistical detail you don’t need to worry about!

I am hoping, long term to get into software development. I love computers, learning through computers, I love creatively solving problems and I need to really dive into a career that allows me the money to support myself, my family and my community. At the moment I have so little time and energy to give on all fronts, primarily due to the stresses of money. It sucks, but it is what it is. I am hoping to change that.

As a concrete step to that goal, I have begun Harvard+MIT’s free online Programming Course, CS50. I will be making my way through it this fall.

There’s a lot more, but as I’ve promised to be back here soon, I’ll leave that til then.

It’s late and I ought to get some rest. Take care and be good to yourself.

thanks for reading,
juan