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xkcd author Randall Munroe speaks to an audience in 26-100. The web comic artist visited on December 17 to answer questions and sign copies of his new book.
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“XKCD is here in 26-100 tonight.”

My head snapped up. I was bored, sitting with my friend Daniel in my HASS’s teacher’s office on Thursday afterno­on, waiting for her to return some essays.

“Wait, what?” I asked him to read the e-mail he got from his floor mailing list aloud. Apparently, Randall Munroe, author of the popular webcomic xkcd, was going to sign copies of his new book in 26-100 from 6–8 p.m. I was surprised; it was the first I had heard of the event. I would have expected an e-mail or at least more posters around campus, but I was just grateful that I heard of it in time.

I’m a big fan of xkcd and have been reading it regularly for the past couple of years (http://xkcd.com, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”).

Admittedly, I don’t understand a good chunk of the math/programmer jokes, but I assume that MIT will fix that over time. Over the past semester. xkcd’s consistent midnight release has become a milestone on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights that momentarily break the monotony of psets.

I didn’t have anything to do and wasn’t going home until Friday, and a good friend of mine back home loves xkcd, so I decided I’d go to the signing.

My friend Tony and I wandered into 26-100 around 6:10 p.m. and I was surprised to see so many people seated. There must about been around 150 people when I walked in and nearly 200 by the time the talk finished. I had expected just a book signing — not a full-on presentation. I scanned the front of the room for Randall Munroe and realized that I had no idea what he looked like. As we took out seats, Tony whispered to me “they could put some random guy up there to talk to us about xkcd and I’d never know the difference.”

I was too late to buy a book before the presentation, so we settled into our seats to listen to Randall Munroe’s talk.

The “talk” consisted less of a presentation and more of open Q&A. Munroe hadn’t actually prepared any sort of presentation, and just opened the floor to the audience.

Venn diagram of geeks and nerds

One of the first questions was “What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd?” which resulted in Munroe trying to explain a Venn Diagram he had once seen on the internet about this concept and then refusing to use the blackboard to draw it out and using his tablet (hooked up to the video projector) to explain instead. The diagram involved a number of categories and was rather incomprehensible since it was messy, but Munroe promised to put up a clean version of the xkcd blag sometime soon.

On parenthetical emoticons

Other audience members questions varied from how early xkcd comics are finished before deadline (Munroe keeps a list of ideas for comics and sketches one out quickly if he doesn’t come up with anything new) to how to put smiley faces in parenthesis (apparently we’re all doomed to “double chinned” smileys :)).

The smiley question resulted in a rather amusing demonstration of how creepy the Google Chat smileys are when they turn slowly. Using the tablet he had attached to his Mac (he uses a tablet as a mouse all the time, though he says he rarely draws on it. The stick figure he drew for the crowd was noticeably different than the ones in the comics) and drew a sideways smiley.

It’s a “normal smiley” he said, and even rotated to the right orientation it was noticeably “not creepy.” However, he pointed out, as soon as the smiley is turned slowly, it becomes very frightening. Whenever he was drawing, Munroe stopped talking completely, telling us afterwards that he can never talk while drawing. It’s “something about the way the brain works” he said, gesturing at his head.

Making and breaking friendships

Asked about the impact of some of his comics, Munroe cited comic 513, “Friends,” about a friend who slowly inches into a romantic relationship. He mentioned that several readers e-mailed him who knew exactly what he was talking about, some who realized they were in such a relationship, and one man who knew he had done the same thing to his girlfriend and was “going to try his best” to make sure she didn’t find out about the comic.

My favorite part of the presentation was when Munroe was asked if he had ever intentionally screwed up a relationship for the sake of writing a comic. While the answer was no, he recalled a story about how a comic nearly screwed up a relationship.

On the night that comic 330, “Indecision,” a comic about how indecision should ultimately end in sexual experimentation, was released, he had a first date with a girl and some friends. While the two of them were chatting in one room, the comic went live without Munroe thinking about it. Their friends in the other room saw the comic and eventually when Munroe opened the door, he found a bottle of Crisco behind it. Though he immediately realized the joke, he said that explaining to his date was “awkward” though fortunately “she took it in good humor.”

Multi-hour waits for signing

The presentation stopped at 7 p.m. so that the book signings could begin. Two enormous lines immediately formed — one to buy books and one to get books signed. I accidentally stood in the book signing line for 30 minutes without realizing it and had to switch to the other line. While it didn’t take terribly long to buy a book, the line for a signing took considerably longer.

We ended up getting our books signed around 9:30 p.m., and there was still a line stretching up the aisle of 26-100 and around the back. The long wait was due mostly to the fact that Munroe tried to speak to each fan while he signed their book, since everyone was “patient and waited in line for so long.” He thanked every fan for waiting, was happy to take pictures with anyone who wanted one, and expressed concern that he was going to need to hurry in order to leave early to put the comic up.

“The people in the back are going to think I’m a jerk,” he said when mentioning that he wasn’t going to be able to give everyone as much personal attention as he would have liked, “That’s really unfortunate.”

Though I went in for only one book for my friend, I ended up getting one for myself as well. MIT Press sold the books for $19, $1 more expensive than they are online. They made about $2,000 that night.

Munroe ended up leaving 26-100 before midnight to put that night’s comic, “Asshole,” online. This is Munroe’s second visit to MIT after his visit through LSC in 2007.