The creator, Randall Munroe—who is three years younger than I am—has put together his first book, xkcd: Volume 0, with the help of Breadpig. And he's doing a few book release parties to raise money to build a school in Laos.
One such party was at 111 Minna tonight, sponsored by EFF. Tickets were $30, or $100 to come an hour early and get some extra schmoozing time. I was waffling on whether or not I wanted to drop thirty bucks on the event, but then Aarika told me a story.
See, Aarika (adnirem) and Julia (skogkatt) celebrate my birthday like it's a national holiday. Every year, they get each other presents for my birthday. Don't ask me why. Don't ask them why. It's a thing.
A few weeks ago, Julia was chatting with a friend of hers in a coffeeshop. Said friend knows Randall Munroe (and Ryan North, I mean, COME ON NOW). They were talking about how she knew all these webcomics guys when...in walked Randall Munroe. Who invited them back to his apartment to play in his ball pit.
Julia decided that an awesome Sunil's Birthday present would be a ball from Randall Munroe's ball pit. So she got him to write "Happy Sunil's Birthday to Aarika" on a red ball. Randall Munroe wrote my name!
With that knowledge, I knew it was my destiny to meet Randall Munroe tonight.
I got to 111 Minna a little after 6, expecting there to be a line, but there was no one but a Wikipedian protester. All the VIPs were already in, and I was told to come back at 7. I waited. The line began to really form around 6:20 or 6:30. Dave and Dan joined eventually, and although they felt like dicks cutting in front of everyone, I argued that I had been holding the spot for all of us, so they should make it worth it for me to have arrived so early. We fielded many questions about the nature of the line and where the end was. I am fairly certain one of the questioners was Zalman, a friend of Jess's I've met on a few occasions, but the level of recognition was never quite clear.
Once they let us in, I headed to the merch table to buy the book, which was being sold for $20 despite retailing for $18, both for ease of pay and because half the proceeds went to the EFF. I bought a couple more copies as gifts, hoping that Randall wouldn't hate me for having him sign three books.
I could see him signing at a table; even though I couldn't remember what he looked like, the fact that he was signing books gave him away. I tried to find the end of the line.
"Is this the end of the line?" I asked a trio, two girls and a guy. The guy said it was. "I am the end of the line," I declared. One very cute girl was smiling at me from the bar. I smiled back.
The other girl complained about the way people were just crowding in and jumping into line, which kept the actual line from moving. "I hate people who don't recognize social patterns," she said.
"You do know you're in a room full of geeks?" I quipped.
"So they should be good at pattern recognition!" she responded. Touché.
And speaking of recognition, who should I see making their way through the crowd but Rob and Joan! "Why am I not surprised?" said Rob. I have geeky friends. We congregate at geeky things.
The other girl went to investigate the state of the line, leaving me with the tall guy and the short brunette, who smiled at me once again. I had no idea what was causing this rampant smiling, but I took it as a good sign and introduced myself, shaking her hand. Her name was Lauren. The guy's name was...something name-y.
A woman addressed me from behind or perhaps from the side or some other direction, but she addressed me: "spectralbovine." I had no idea who she was. "You don't know me but I started reading your journal for the Veronica Mars posts, and then I stayed for the TV-related posts." This was true of many people! I still had no idea who she was and was afraid this was going to get strange and awkward. "Ryca," she said.
Wait. "R-Y-C-A?" I asked to make sure. Yes. Yes! ryca!! I was so excited to meet her! She has left me many nice comments, and I knew she was in the Bay Area so I'd wanted to meet her at some point, and here she was! I hugged her, and she hugged me, and it was a really nice hug, you guys. She introduced me to her boyfriend and said she'd find me after the thing and I told her that yes, yes, she totally should! (Sadly, we did not find each other after the thing. But it was really great to meet you, ryca! For future reference, if you comment on my journal frequently or occasionally, I very likely will recognize your username straight-up so you don't need to do the creepy lurker introduction!)
The other girl returned, and I found no good opening to introduce myself. The line situation was a mess, and the organizers were antsy since Randall had to go up and, like, be an event at some point. They diverted us into a special express line of some sort.
It turned out Lauren wrote for io9! Cool! I asked her what her last name was, but I didn't recognize it. She said she mostly posted inane lists. "The Internet can always use more inane lists," I said. I suggested a list of Summer Glau appearances in xkcd.
A man asked us whether we were there for the VIP portion. I had been a little unclear before but had suspected that the line was actually only for the VIPs who had paid extra, but I did not look forward to having to stand in a crazy line after the event, so I simply lied and said, "Yeah." Dave and Dan aren't the dicks; I am! In fact, I was going to be the last person to meet Randall Munroe before he went up to talk.
I asked Lauren if she would take a picture. She said sure, but could I send it to her tonight? Wait, did she want me to take a picture of her? She...wanted a picture of me with him? Oh, she just wanted a picture of him. Sometimes she could get good pictures from her phone, but it was better to have a camera. I told her I could send her pictures, no problem. She handed me her card, which had her e-mail address and phone number.
Lauren was the penultimate person to get her book signed. Ladies and gentlemen, Randall Munroe!
And then it was my turn! I plopped my book in front of him and said, in my trademark stumbling-over-my-words form, "So a few weeks ago you invited my friend Julia to play in your ball pit, and she asked you to write 'Happy Sunil's Birthday to Aarika' on a red ball. I'm Sunil!"
It took him a few seconds into my story to remember what the hell I was talking about, but by the end he got it and said, "It's nice to meet you!"
"It's nice to meet you!" I replied.
"I don't remember how I spelled it," he said, signing my book. I spelled it for him. He wrote, "To Sumil." I had to correct him, which was difficult in the midst of all the chatter. He signed his name and drew Black Hat and then painstakingly drew a little scene with dialogue. Later, I saw that it was the regular stick crying, "Disaster!" And Black Hat holding a machine gun and saying, "We'll kill all witnesses." I don't know whether he draws the same scene in everyone's or just makes something up on the spot.
As he drew, one of the EFF guys commented on my Hypotamoose shirt, saying that he appreciated its geekiness. "I wore it to be appreciated!" I said. Randall looked up and examined my shirt as well. I could see the gears turning in his head and hoped he got it.
I knew he was pressed for the time, but I apologized and asked him to sign the two books that were gifts. Although he didn't draw the scene, he did draw Black Hat.
"Would it be weird," he said, "to wish a happy your birthday to you?" Heh. "Or just a happy birthday to you?" I said it would be fine, and he wished me a happy birthday.
Lauren took a few other pictures of me in the vicinity of Randall, who now made his way to the stage. We tried to find decent spots to stand. I was going to be taking pictures, and she was going to film the whole thing with her phone. I took care not to comment to her during the talk so as not to ruin her video.
A woman from EFF introduced Alexis, founder of Breadpig, who introduced Randall.
He started by talking about the process of making the book and how he really had no idea how to make a book so he just winged it, which ended up working. He commented that everyone he talked to about making a book had come up with some non-traditional method that they had come up with because they hadn't known how to make books either, but even though they worked, they always ended with "But don't do that."
Now, after the talk, they would normally have a Q&A, but this time they'd done a Q&A through reddit such that people could vote questions up and down. Alexis would ask the top 10 questions.
"Does the need to produce comics three times a week ever lead you to draw something you really didn't like? Any comics of yours you don't like? And any comics out there you really, really hate?"
Not surprisingly, he doesn't like comics where people don't get the joke. Sometimes he gets e-mails from people who have spent a lot of time trying to find the joke in a comic, looking up things on Wikipedia and cross-referencing phrases and whatnot, but none of the things they think are the joke are actually the joke. Sheepishly: "It was just the penis joke."
He also gave an extended story on this comic, which he said stemmed from a real life annoyance with the "Words that end in GRY" riddle. He wanted to lambast the nature of the riddle, but, ironically, he got some e-mails about the riddle itself telling him that he'd said it wrong and if he'd said it this way it would be properly unclear, which was the exact opposite of the point he was trying to get across.
He also talked about the NSFW TGI Friday's comic, which he said he had held back for a while but decided that it felt too much like he was censoring himself, and, dammit, he thought it was funny, even if it did end up getting people in trouble while they were reading webcomics at work. He very wisely noted that, uh, maybe you shouldn't be reading webcomics at work. But he has gotten the graphic drawings of genitalia out of his system, so it's back to stick figures having sex.
He also said that he finds it hard to write comics about issues he feels strongly about since he can't keep himself from getting preachy. So he'd like to do more comics about gender issues, for instance, but he has trouble making them funny instead of just saying what he thinks.
"Are you ever going to get over this Megan chick?"
Oh my. I had been looking at the reddit questions and wondering whether they would ask some of these more awkward and uncomfortable questions if they earned a place in the top ten. Sure seemed like it!
Randall said that he originally chose the name Megan for the female stick figure just because it was a name, not after anyone; he just needed a name sometimes to make the joke work. And the comics that, to us, seem to reflect his current love life are really reflective of his love life from two years ago, now that he's had enough time to move past it and find it funny. And of course, they're not just based on his own experiences but things he's heard or thoughts he's had. He tries to keep from inserting too much of himself and his friends into the comics because then his friends start getting e-mails about things that happened in the comics since people read into them.
"Why have 'Romance' -- such as in 'Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language' -- degenerated into 'Sex'?"
"Well," said Randall, "I just hit puberty a few months ago..." But seriously, folks, he writes comics about what he's thinking about, and...there's your answer.
"Of all things on the internet that you influenced, which one that you're most proud of?"
Getting the title text bug fixed in Firefox. GEEK.
"What is it like having to tell non-geek people you're famous?"
He doesn't! He just tells them he works in computers.
Random comment placed here because I forget where it goes: he said that people assume he's an expert on everything he writes comics about when, in fact, he just reads the first paragraphs of Wikipedia entries. Like, the above-the-line paragraph before it goes into any useful detail. But he told us the story of someone he calls Fistsize Ball of Energy Girl, who sent him a tale of experiencing a fistsize ball of energy that ended with, "You know science. Please expain it to me." And of course he had no idea what it was, but he gave her a very long explanation of the scientific method to explain why he couldn't answer her question.
But what he was most fascinated by was...how does someone tell that a ball of energy is "fistsize"? She didn't even see it; she just felt it. In any case, that girl holds a special place in his heart.
You have a ball pit (and we are all jealous). These colorful spheres are made of plastic, which - while fantastic throw people into - seems to be pretty good at collecting all sorts of dirt and such by way of static electricity.
How do you keep your balls clean?"
It wouldn't be an xkcd event if there weren't a double entendre. He explained about the ball pit and how it basically functioned like a couch. You could play Mario Kart while in the ball pit, for instance. As for keeping it clean, he discouraged participants from engaging in heavy petting while in the ball pit. "Don't leave anything in there that you came in with."
The balls didn't really get much dirtier than a couch, and most people don't clean their couches more than dusting it off or maybe vacuuming it occasionally, so ball pit uptake was not that bad.
"Who is the most surprising person that has revealed to you that they're a fan of xkcd?"
After some thought, he mentioned a talk at Google he had done. In the front row was...Donald Knuth. CHEERS! APPLAUSE! I HAD NO IDEA WHO HE WAS BUT APPARENTLY HE IS FAMOUS IN COMPUTERS FOR ALGORITHMS OR SOMETHING.
I was more impressed that he got a very nice e-mail from...Maddox! Apparently he is secretly a really nice guy, shhh.
"Are you aware that you have a very apparent need to tell people you're getting laid?"
No, they really weren't going to censor the uncomfortable questions! He had pretty much already addressed this earlier, so he expounded and reiterated that the more personal comics are generally on a two-year lag.
All right all right all right. It was time...for the scary Romanian question.
Alexis read the question while Randall scribbled notes and did mad calculations. (Oh, shit, at one point earlier he did hold up his notebook to show his doodles and such, but I didn't get a picture.)
Alexis couldn't pronounce some of the Romanian towns. I couldn't believe he was actually reading the whole thing. It was hilarious.
But Randall was ready! He could do this!
"Assume a spherical Romania," he said, and we erupted in cheers and laughter. But seriously, you guys.
He went into a very long and involved response to the question, evaluating the different choices. It was great. When he got to the section about where to stay, he said that he wouldn't sleep on the beach or a random hostel. Instead, though, since the questioner seemed to be an Internet-savvy geek, he would make sure his plight got out to the larger geek community so that they could—
"I see what you did there," he commented, amused, and continued. Now I honestly wonder whether the scary Romanian question has some basis in reality. Ha.
He even addressed the bonus question, attempting to generalize the problem and identify its complexity. The whole thing was epic.
But there was still one more question.
"Sorry, this isn't really a question."
Well, Randall just happened to have this...
Randall went back to his table to do more signing. Lauren was glad not to have to hold her phone up anymore. "Feel how hot it is," she said, holding it out in her hand. I felt it. It was pretty warm.
I had thought she was part of the earlier trio, but it seemed she was actually on her own, and she continued to talk to me as if I were some sort of interesting person to talk to or something. I asked if she was in the city, and she was. I was in Oakland. She had not been to Oakland but a few times. Wait, how long had she been here? Only a few months. Ah! I'd been here three years. She'd been here three months. Well, she should come over to Oakland. She lived not too far from the Mission; I should come over to the Mission. I do, frequently!
Dan appeared, and I introduced him, but he was only there to say goodbye, loser.
Lauren needed some water, and I could use some too. We got some water by the bar and talked more about Comic-Con and how exhausting it was. She told me about New York Comic-Con.
I didn't know where to look when talking. Was I supposed to look her in the eye the whole time? Isn't eye contact supposed to be good? I seemed to be unable to make eye contact, instead shifting my focus every which way. I feared that if I made eye contact, she would smile, and then I would smile, and then she would smile, and I would smile, and we would be caught in an Infinite Smile Loop.
That doesn't sound so bad now that I think about it.
In any case, we talked and talked and talked. She said she needed to introduce herself to some of the EFF folk, so I tried to find Dave, who knew one of them. But he was stuck in a crowded line. The EFF people were easily identifiable, however, and she introduced herself to them. Then she introduced me once I turned around and joined the conversation. Heh. I'm not sure I've ever been introduced by someone I'd just met before.
Finally, Lauren said that she had to go since she had work to do. I understood. I wasn't sure whether I was going to wait for Dave, but while I deliberated, Jess's friend Wes passed me, and I called out to him. He smiled and gave me a hug before leaving.
Lauren asked whether I was just taking BART. I was. I checked the time. It was past 9, and I had intended to leave at 9 anyway. I did a quick search to see if ryca was buried in the crowd, but I couldn't find her, or at least I didn't recognize her, so I decided to leave with Lauren.
Outside, she was shivering, but I had not brought a jacket to toss around her. She said it was okay; she had to adjust from the Boston weather anyway.
Since she was new in town, I invited her to a couple events this weekend where she could meet more geeky people. She seemed interested and told me to e-mail her about them.
Down in Montgomery Station, she was taking Muni and I was taking BART, so we parted ways. We both agreed that it was nice meeting each other and shook hands. "Hope to see you again!" I said.
The event was a lot of fun, and it was very cool to see Randall Munroe be a normal person guy. There will actually be a free event on Wednesday at Borderlands at 7:30, so if you didn't get a ticket to this, you should go. I would go, but I should really be a responsible adult.
I would be annoyed that I paid to meet Randall Munroe when I could have done so for free, but it was worth it to make a new friend.