It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad World Wide Web

A key concept of the Internet is that it was not designed for just one application, but as a general infrastructure on which new applications could be conceived, as illustrated later by the emergence of the World Wide Web” (Leiner, “Brief History of the Internet”).

historyofinternetThe internet is an absurd creature. Formed by an amalgamation of brain children born from some of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, it is a beast of burden meant to carry the collective imaginations of mankind into the future. The Internet is an animal whose pedigree would earn it “best in Show,” or, at least, best in the Freak Show.

This tyrannical beast was to be the intellectual salvation of humanity. Instead, it just may have doomed us all. Like a horde of screaming Faye Wrays, we all of us have allowed ourselves to be snatched up by the grasping primate arm attached to the monster that is online culture. And even when we do manage wriggle free from that grip, the monkey remains on our backs — an attention-grabbing spectacle of simian smarts and savagery.

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In the beginning, the internet was heralded as the means of humanity’s deliverance. We are tool-using animals, and the world wide web was a implement on par with the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which proto-humans discover that animal bones can be wielded as weapons. And, just like that band of early humans from Stanley Kubrick’s cosmic opera, we have transformed the internet from a mechanism for technological and intellectual advancement into an instrument of war, a club with which we may beat one another, and even ourselves, into stupefied submission. This once great “informational super-highway” has gone the way of America’s own crumbling infrastructure.

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I don’t deny that many still use the World Wide Web for research and improvement, only that, for every Smarter Every Day video, there are a couple thousand others of cats displaying admittedly charming, though otherwise mundane feline behaviors, poorly planned exploits that inevitably conclude with the distinctly unsagacious males involved bandying about in comically exaggerated bow-legged fashion, and all manner of disturbingly ignorant, hateful vitriol aimed at any number of undeserving minority parties.

Who could have predicted such a fate?

In 1995, the nascent internet was still in its infancy, though already being touted as the saving grace of mankind. We were assured that, with access to the collective knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, we were surely on the verge of a second renaissance, an inspirational period of great enlightenment.

Instead, what we’ve witnessed a short two decades after the fact is a listlessly ebbing sea of memes and LOLCats, epic fails and repackaged nostalgia. We are puppets, tangled up in Reddit threads, strangled by our own suffocating sentimentality . And yes, this turn of events was predicted back in ’95 by… FREAKAZOID.

Freakazoid was one of those Spielberg cartoons ubiquitous in the 90s, featured along such classics as “Animaniacs” and “Tiny Toon Adventures.” It’s a about a young computer nerd who accidentally downloads the entire internet into his brain. Does our hero become a wise, sophisticated creature of reason? Is he a cultured erudite, brimming with charm? Of course not; he’s loud, obnoxious, and downright schizophrenic in nature. He is our modern-day internet culture personified.

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I began by asserting that the internet is absurd, and I stand by that statement. But my argument, (as you will witness over the next several weeks) goes beyond that. I propose that the internet is the new Theater of the Absurd.

The Theater of the Absurd was a classification used to describe a genre of plays first popularized in the 1950s. Playwrights like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Alejandro Jodorowsky illustrated the consequences of the meaninglessness of human existence – the disintegration of communication as order gave way to chaos. Look to any online comments section for confirmation of this.

Albert Camus’ rather nihilistic work, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” lays out the absurdity of life by comparing  it to the trials of Sisyphus, a character from Greek legend doomed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it repeatedly succumb to gravity, for all eternity. This mindless, empty task, Camus argued, is a allegory for the human condition — an undeniably depressing thought.

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The best way to respond to this miserable metaphor that so perfectly exemplified the vacuity of our lives, Camus posited, was not to give in to self-destruction, but to revolt. It is neither humans, nor the system in which we function that is ridiculous; that absurdity manifests itself through our insatiable desire for reason in an unreasonable world; the “appetite for the absolute and for unity” encounters “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

“The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than that of Sisyphus]. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” – Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

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I’ll admit, when I first read “The Myth of Sisyphus,” I was more than a little unhappy upon reaching the conclusion. I dwelt incessantly on the absurdity of my own life. I was at the time writing a thesis paper on this very topic and found myself repeatedly wondering, What is the point?

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Oh, I knew the immediate benefits from completing my task, not to mention the scholarly bragging rights. But beyond that, beyond graduation, beyond a potentially soul-crushing job in some vaguely related field, beyond being an interesting cocktail party guest, what had I accomplished?

Though I wallowed for several days in a dreary malaise, I eventually came to see that the very concept that so depressed me was also my salvation. In the same way that Buddhists find peace through the realization that life is suffering, (I’m oversimplifying, of course, and apologies to any who are unsatisfied by this glib interpretation) one must accept the absurdity of life and simply live.

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Now, can anybody reading this post sincerely argue that the endless, mimetic self-references, the cat videos, the pop-culture detritus of the internet, has any more meaning than the ceaseless rolling of a boulder up a hill? But it isn’t only meaningless that classifies absurdity; it is the way in which it echoes the human condition, and in that sense, the internet a fun house mirror, reflecting a heightened reality of our lives.

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Bee Colonies & Columnar Basalt

The universe is lazy; it will always seek out the simplest solution. This can be witnessed in a number of natural phenomena, but this week is about… HEXAGONS.

Hexagons are six-sided polygons in which all six walls meet at a 120 degree angle. And hexagons are the reason bees, despite the recent Colony Collapse Disorder plaguing them, are some of the most successful and complex social insects on the planet.

Honeycomb is created in a repeating hexagonal pattern, all pieces fitting perfectly together. The comb is made of beeswax, a labor-intensive building material; a bee would have to fly around the Earth 12 times to make a single pound of it. Because of this, bees must be especially efficient, using the least amount of wax to create storage units with the most amount of space. Bees all over the world use this tessellation of hexagons, utilizing their bodies as rulers; larger bees make larger honeycomb cells, and vice versa.

If one is looking to create a storage container of repeating shapes that all fit together without any gaps, there are actually few options. You could use equilateral triangles, squares, or hexagons. Triangles would have used more wax than any other configuration, with squares coming as the second most wasteful. Only hexagons can work for these needs.

And now for something completely different… ROCKS.

The Giant’s Causeway, Ireland

The Hexagonal Pool, Israel

Hexagons can be found in columnar basalt formations all over the world. These gorgeous, natural, geological phenomena are caused by lava cooling and cracking. The cracks, looking for the easiest path through the medium, naturally form hexagons.

Not every piece of the columnar basalt puzzle is a perfect hexagon; nature’s not perfect—but it is lazy. Remember? Remember how I said that in the beginning? Yeah.

Now, in traditional S.T.E.A.M. fashion, I will make this science about art, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner. One might even call it “cheating.” But the photographs I’ve found in my brief search for images for this post have proven how simply capturing the natural beauty of the world becomes art.

I am a failed studio artist who picked up a camera when she was unable to communicate with charcoal and paint, and I seek out wondrous places with my camera. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to go to Iceland because of all their marvelous geological formations created through eons of volcanic activity. I have no doubt that, if I ever make it there, I will find some hexagons worth aiming my lens at.

Svartifoss Falls, Iceland

Blogger’s Note: Please, please, PLEASE excuse that last line; I abhorr sentences ended in prepositions, but honestly couldn’t think of a better way to communicate my point that didn’t begin to sound ridiculous. I think it was Churchill who said, in response to someone criticizing his use of prepositions at the end of his sentences, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

There’s debate whether Winston ever actually said this, but that’s not entirely the point. My point is to express that I know my final sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I am forced to acknowledge that saying, “I will find some hexagons at which it will be worth aiming my lens” is incredibly awkward. *sigh* friends…

(I’m sorry, couldn’t find a more appropriate place for this video, but I’m a huge fan of Kurzgesagt, [German for “in a nutshell”] and wanted to share this).

The Golden Ratio: A Constant Beauty

Disclaimer #1: the WordPress formatting has gone strange and no matter how many times I try, this comes out in all caps. I apologize.
Disclaimer #2: there are those who believe this to be totally hooey. This is because the Golden Ratio, usually simplified to 1.6180, is actually an infinite decimal, like Pi, meaning that it never ends, it extends into infinity. Therefore, some claim, nothing can truly measure up, so to speak, to the Golden Ratio, because said ratio can never be measured.
Now, I am not a mathematician; I am an artist. So my reaction to this argument is to shrug and say, “Meh, close enough.” If that sort of blasé attitude offends your mathy sensibilities, you should probably stop reading now.

The above picture is the simplest example of the Golden Ratio. Two quantities fit the ratio if the larger part, divided by the smaller part is equal to the whole length divided by the larger part. For more detail, try the Math is Fun [https://www.mathsisfun.com/numbers/golden-ratio.html] explanation.
This ratio, (also referred to as PHI and the Divine Proportion) can be found all over the natural world: in honeybee hives, the females outnumber the males by 1.618 to 1. The ratio of each spiral of a chambered Nautilus’ shell is 1.618 to 1. Sunflower seeds grow in opposing spirals –the ratio is the 1.618 to 1; the same is true for the spirals of pinecone petals, rose petals, leaf arrangement on plant stalks, insect segmentation… the list goes on.
Why is this? What does it mean? There is no definite answer. Some say it’s just a simple pattern, and simple patterns often repeat, much like convergent evolution, which is when two distinct species evolve similar traits. For example, bats, birds, and insects all independently developed modes of flight. Others choose to take a more spiritual approach and read deeper meaning into the ratio scribbled across the universe like a creator’s signature. Whatever your view, you cannot deny the wondrous beauty of this simple, repeating pattern.
PHI is stamped all over the human body as well. Da Vinci was one of the first to notice that each segment of fingers between the joints on the human hand matches the ratio. The distance from your wrist to your elbow and from the tip of your middle finger to your wrist: PHI. The distance from middle fingertip to elbow, divided by the distance between elbow to shoulder: PHI. The ratio is all across the human body, not only the arms, but I don’t have time to list them all. This graphic will have to do.
When it comes to measuring beauty in the human face, the more universally attractive a person, the more closely his or her face fits the ratio. The length of the face divided by the width, the length between the lips and the eyebrows and the length of the nose, the length between the distance between the pupils and the distance between the eyes… again, the list goes on. Click here if you want to see how your face measures up.

Classically beautiful women of history: Greta Garbo, Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, a woman from a Botticelli painting I have yet to identify, sincerest apologies

Even your computer follows the divine proportion. Look down at your keyboard; the distance between the shift key and the Z key and the distance between the shift key and caps lock is PHI.
PHI is found in architecture, logos, and numerous other man-made structures.
Now, all this also ties in with something called the Fibonacci Sequence, but that is a post for next week.
15 Uncanny Examples of the Golden Ratio 

Math + Art = The Purist Expression of Impossibility

Blogger’s Note: What you are about to read is my very longwinded answer to the oft-asked query, “What does your tattoo mean?” The fact that a $50 sub-dermal injection of ink I got as a 21st birthday present to myself happens to perfectly encapsulate the Project S.T.E.A.M. objective through the marriage of art and math is just icing on the [birthday] cake.

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My decision to treat myself to a Penrose triangle tattoo on the inside of my right wrist as a 21st birthday present was not made lightly. I ultimately chose the design because it spoke to me on multiple levels. First, because I am a fan of M. C. Escher, who used similar impossible objects in his optical illusion artwork; second, because I am an advocate for embracing the absurd. Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose was inspired to design his triangle after attending a lecture Escher gave at the 1954 International Congress of Mathematicians. At the conference, the Dutch artist presented his work on translational symmetry; Escher translated (see what I did there?) Euclidean geometry into art with his awe-inspiring tessellations.

Penrose was “absolutely spellbound” by Escher’s artwork, and set out to create a visual representation of “impossibility in its purest form” – the Penrose triangle.

Roger Penrose, and his psychiatrist father, Lionel, wrote about the younger Penrose’s triangle for the British Journal of Psychology in 1958. The Penroses sent a copy of their article to M. C. Escher, who went on to incorporate the impossible object into his 1961 lithograph, The Waterfall.

The Waterfall seems to depict a violation of the law of the conservation of energy, as the water appears to flow in a continuous loop, simultaneously cascading down a waterfall that rotates a waterwheel, which in turn, (pun intended, as always) looks as if it propels the water along a channel that is presented as level, but must be on an incline, as that is the only way for the water to rise enough for it to create the waterfall. Just as Penrose, once inspired by Escher, went on to play muse to the Dutch artist in return, The Waterfall continuously feeds back on itself.

Contemporary artists continue to draw inspiration from Penrose’s triangle. The Impossible Triangle is a sculpture that was created by artist Brian McKay and architect Ahmad Abas. Located at the center of a roundabout in Perth, Australia, what appears to be simply an abstract sculpture reveals itself as a Penrose triangle when viewed from the correct angle.

Writer and director Christopher Nolan is another modern artist whose creativity was stimulated by the inspired (intended, again) collaboration of mathematician, Penrose, and artist, Escher, (a match made in S.T.E.A.M. heaven). In Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi thriller Inception, “extractors” perform daring heists and corporate espionage in the dreams of their intended targets. Ellen Page plays an architecture graduate student recruited to design dreamscapes. In the video clip below, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur describes the advantages of the Penrose staircase to Page’s Ariadne.

Top: Escher’s “Ascending and Descending” Bottom: the Penrose staircase from “Inception”

Inspiration and art are endlessly engaged in relentless pursuit of one another, both rising and falling in equal measure, much like Escher’s Ascending and Descending. Even as one creation inspires another, which in turn inspires a third, art always seems to revolve around basic, central themes. The creations of Roger Penrose, Maurits Cornelis Escher, Brian McKay, Ahmad Abas, and Christopher Nolan share more than inspiration drawn from an impossible triangle; they are all searching for the best method to express “impossibility in its purest form.”

photo by Javier Begazo, January, 2011

photo by Javier Begazo, January, 2011

…what you just read is my very longwinded answer to the oft-asked query, “What does your tattoo mean?”

My Mind, Undermined

This was going to be about Penrose triangles and the mathematics behind the unreal creations of the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher. I was going to open remarking on that last week was about my relationship with my mother and how it pertained to my experience with Pixar’s “Inside Out,” and then that would become the perfect segue into my dad taking me to the Smithsonian when I was in fourth or fifth grade to see an incredible Escher exhibit. I was going to contrast my parents as context for this post: my pragmatic mother blubbering at a kids’ movie, and my kooky father as my artistic guru and guide.

But I was undermined by my own mental segue… call it… undermind?

[UNDERMIND, verb, when mental processes seek to undercut or weaken your intended train of thought. BOOM, friends. Just coined that word. Live it. Love it. USE IT.]

My underminding went straight to my feelings on analog versus digital photography because it was my father who taught me on his decades old 35mm Nikon. Now, I’m gonna cheat a bit here and copy and paste a quick rant from my website, (which I will also now shamelessly plug HERE) but I still intend to go deeper, so fear not loyal readers!

an impromptu self-portrait I snapped my junior year at Sarah Lawrence on the aforementioned 35mm Nikon.  Fun little factoid: when I had my final show for intermediate photo, someone actually stole my best print of this photo off the wall, so this is not my favorite exposure; I do have a notebook with the proper exposure recorded, but I’ve never gotten around to printing another one

I primarily like to offer my services as a portrait photographer. In this rather impersonal digital age of cold, pixilated prints and immaculate, yet intangible images adrift in cyberspace, I believe there is still a niche market for darkroom-printed photos. I’ve come to view digital photography in something of a philosophical light: as a symptom of our culture’s rabid desire for instant gratification. That isn’t to say that I completely abstain from anything but film photography; I’m capable with a DSLR and willing to use one should the situation call for it. I simply believe that my twin-lens reflex medium-format Mamiya C33 will ultimately yield richer, more meaningful photographs.

The photographs I take with my Canon 60D and alter on my laptop never feel “real” – they are messages in a bottle, something that can be communicated and read through the glass, but never interacted with on a palpable level. I send these pictures bobbing off on the waves of the internet; you’ve even glimpsed them on this blog, but they will never be, they will never exist in the purest, verbest sense. [Shall we see how many words I can make up before I end this? Keep tally, dear readers!] 

And here I undermind myself again, getting diverted in such a way that, while I may fail to reach my originally intended terminus, my digression determined destination is ultimately more rewarding. The conductor operating my train of thought is often sidetracked, and easily railroaded by creative whimsy, as evidenced by this post about photography being derailed for wordplay — a crazy crime with a locomotive. These train jokes have truly gone off the rails. Alas, dear readers, you are the hapless victims aboard a punaway train, and I, the casualty of my own reckless punderminding.

(PUNDERMIND, verb, to further derail one’s already compromised train of thought with relentless, unnecessary wordplay]

It was never about Penrose triangles or Escher or my father or digital versus analog photography. No, friends, this is just the old versus the new. This is me writing this post on my MacBook Air in a Starbucks, (unoriginal, I know, I am deeply ashamed, truly I am) while I have a Molkeskine in my purse because I still journal in those… despite having a personal online blog. This is about a bigger question treading on our doorstep, and one so much larger than, “Oh, Pop Pop, you, too, can learn to use Facebook!”

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What is being supplanted and what is being lost?

As pixels and definitions grow higher, grainy black and whites go the way of the iPhone4; negatives are a negative. We’re so keen to improve, we don’t think about what we’re discarding, or the merits of what we were eager to toss in the bin. And we’ll probably look back and wish maybe we’d kept some grain, or see those negatives in a positive light. We’ll gain regrotrospective. Yeah! Retrospective Regret, my friends.

[Just Googled it and somebody already beat me to coining “regrotrospective.” Disappointing.] 

Honestly, friends. As handy as it, and as much as I love whatever incarnation of iPhone I possess at the present moment, my Mamiya C33 is so much more a part of me. That Machine is an extension of my soul. I’d go to the Sarah Lawrence darkroom at 4 in the morning and work until 10, just me in the red glow of the safe light. There’s something primal about that still, liquid, crimson, world. Almost a return to the womb. And in a way, you do create life. Or at least recreate it. You watch disparate pieces come together to for something greater that wasn’t there before. You watch something fade into being, something that came from nothing — Athena springing from Zeus. How does anyone compare a creative genesis like that to clicking a box of computer chips and then staring at a blue screen for a few hours, manipulating pixels?

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Me with seven of my film cameras, (stupid boyfriend has my Argoflex at his house right now). This photo was taken with my DSLR and manipulated with Photoshop, so I’m clearly just a big ol’ hypocrite.

I’m not saying digital photography is not art. Only that I can’t feel it when I create it. I’m saying that my digital photography is not art. It’s just pretty pictures. Because what has always defined art for me is not simply the finished product, but how it came to be. “The journey is more important than the destination” has become sickeningly saccharine and trite, but it applies in my case at least. I can only feel like an artist with a film camera in my hands, everything else is just science. But that does not have to be your experience, dear reader!

And with a final picture, I’m going to bring everything back to where this post started: Penrose triangles, a geometric object Roger Penrose described as “impossibility in its purist form.” I promise that next week I will discuss Penrose triangles, and the art of M. C. Escher.

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and with this shot of my Penrose triangle tattoo, I bring it full circle

Movie Review: Inside Out

For a synopsis of the movie, see my previous post, Psychology and Art: Inside Out.

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I must preface this review with a statement: my mother is not a sensitive woman. She fails to see “the point” in becoming emotional, and until we saw Pixar’s “Inside Out” together, I had known her for 26 years and had never seen her cry. Yet, cry she did as we watched 11-year old Riley suffer all manner of emotional upheaval. After we’d left the theater, she said something that I suppose should have been obvious to me, but I nevertheless found shocking: it hurts her when I’m unhappy. A staggering concept, that a parent would take on a child’s pain, but as my mother never shows that, I’d always assumed she was indifferent to my struggles with bipolar disorder.

Why has my review only been about my relationship with my mother? Well, without giving too much away, the ultimate moral of “Inside Out,” is that it’s important to let the people who love you know how you’re feeling. The major turmoil of the film is set off by Joy and Sadness being removed from Headquarters, but before that, it’s an offhand comment by Riley’s mother about staying positive while her father is under so much stress, both from the move and starting a new business, that makes Riley reluctant to be honest with her parents about how unhappy she is.

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I could talk about the glorious colors, the creative “islands” that make up aspects of Riley’s personality, a truly enjoyable sequence in which wayward feelings, Joy and Sadness, and long-neglected imaginary friend, Bing-Bong, are rushing to catch the “train of thought,” (a literal train) back to headquarters and take a shortcut through abstract thought. The joke that our heroes are literally “deconstructed” might go over the heads of younger viewers, but I can think of a certain philosophy professor from Sarah Lawrence who would chuckle. (I’m also thinking about writing a post on my personal blog analyzing how Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” dictum holds up against the philosophy of “Inside Out”).

Any of the aforementioned aspects of the movie, and plenty I can’t reveal without giving too much away, should be enough to get some latecomers out to the theater sometime this week. But my highest recommendation I can offer just might be my stoic mother’s tears.

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Watch 107 Facts About Inside Out.

Psychology and Art: “Inside Out”

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Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this movie yet, though I have weekend plans to do so. But I’ve been reading so many articles about what it’s gotten right about psychology, that it seemed to tie-in perfectly with the S.T.E.A.M. goal of the marriage of science and art that I had to share something on the subject. There will come a follow-up post concerning my thoughts on the film.

First, in case you’ve been living under a rock, a synopsis:

“Inside Out” is about the inner emotional life of 11-year old Riley. Her five dominant emotions, (joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust) are personified as technicolored characters vying for dominance in a control center within her brain. When some of the core memories that make up Riley’s personality are accidentally removed, and Joy and Sadness lost off in the depths of Riley’s mind, the latter two must recover the core memories and return to the command center before Riley emotionally unravels.

Riley’s core emotions at her internal command center

  1. Sleep used to store long-term memories

“Inside Out” depicts the day’s memories in the form of spheres being sucked up a vacuum tube to be housed in long-term memory while Riley, sleeps. A study published in 2013 by the American Psychological Society notes that “initial theories posed a passive role for sleep enhancing memories by protecting them from interfering stimuli, current theories highlight an active role for sleep in which memories undergo a process of system consolidation during sleep.”

I’ll be interested to see if the movie addresses the role of dreams in the formation of long-term memory as well.

  1. Re-labeling the dominant emotions of our memories

Riley repeatedly remembers a time she misses a winning goal during a hockey game. At first, the memory orb is blue, for sadness. When her teammates rally around her to cheer her up, however, the orb changes to yellow, for joy. When you’re miserable and determined to be so, any attempt to cheer you up, like a reminder of a happy memory, will probably result in you only recalling the worst aspects of that particular experience. When I first was dumped by my college boyfriend, all my memories of Sarah Lawrence, from my classes to my professors and friends seemed like just a twist of the blade in my heart, (sorry to get melodramatic, but it’s true). But, four years later, I can look back at that time and smile once again.

  1. “Negative” emotions are not always so

The emotional upheaval of the film begins with Riley’s family moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Sadness reigns as Riley’s dominant emotion. Riley recalls in the third act that it was her obvious outward sadness about losing the hockey game that made others want to help her, and that denying one’s unhappy emotions will not make them go away. I’m bipolar, and while manic episodes and crashes are few and far between thanks to a cocktail of medications and regular talk-therapy, I embrace the extremes when they happen. The mania is always a state of great energy and creativity, in which I’m super productive and can’t seem to write enough, draw enough, photograph enough. The lows I try to just see as “down time” after so much frenetic excitement. Neither are so extreme these days, thanks to the aforementioned treatment.

Inside Out - Emotion Poster Collaboration

Whatever my emotional state, manic, crashing, or somewhere in-between, I expect “Inside Out” to run me through the full gauntlet of emotions before the credits roll. I’m sorry to say that in researching this post, one of the reviews I read resulted in a major spoiler that already had me tearing up, so, needless to say, I’m very excited to see what else this movie has to offer.

And please listen to this great NPR interview with the creative team.

And now, because it’s Wednesday, your weekly S.T.E.A.M.-themed cartoon:

Yes, it's not really a cartoon, but it's still funny; no one likes a nitpicker

Yes, it’s not really a cartoon, but it’s still funny; no one likes a nitpicker