The man [hiding] behind the raptor

Just one day before the Fall Concert, Wiegand Gymnasium was already packed. On the stage: a kite, an oscilloscope, a decorated harp, a projector, a couch, a skee-ball alley, and one of the staples of geek culture, Randall Munroe.

Munroe worked for NASA before and after his graduation from Christopher Newport University. His contract was not renewed in 2006, so he turned his hobby, a webcomic called xkcd, into a full-time endeavor. Most of his minimalist, stick-figure strips featured mathematics or computer science jokes, while others had deep philosophical or romantic thoughts not meant to be humorous at all. Occasionally, he would grab Internet-wide attention with elaborate mappings of Internet culture.

Fans have, on numerous occasions, reproduced events in Munroe’s strips: smuggling chessboards with glued-down pieces onto amusement rides; or calling for citations in true Wikipedian fashion (“citation needed”), as a member of the audience so boldly produced on the spot. Munroe’s fan devotion has progressed to the point where, for one strip, he included GPS coordinates and a date. On that day, hundreds of fans congregated and welcomed Munroe on those coordinates, a playground in Boston.

Adding to the artist’s character, Munroe’s webcomic reflects an apparent obsession with potential raptor attacks (inspired by Jurassic Park) and the Guitar Hero video game series. Behind Munroe during the entire lecture, though covered by a projector screen on stage, was a hulking silhouette of a raptor.

Munroe attracted 800 fans to a crammed Wiegand Gymnasium. At 25, Randall Munroe looked like he could have been anyone in the audience, but everyone sitting below knew him by sight. There was a noticeable shift in the audience as they first listened to him speak.

After the initial applause, Munroe commented that he had wanted to visit Carnegie Mellon, and had been consistently receiving more e-mail invitations to lectures here than anywhere else. He then referenced and added more jokes to his previous strips, one of which featured a fictional scatterplot association between blood-alcohol content and programming ability. He announced that programmers with a BAC of 0.1337% are the most proficient.

Later, Munroe described a college prank he performed at CNU, alongside his hobby of kite photography (attaching cameras to kites). He flew a kite very high over a first-year dorm, with a long string tied near the top of the kite line. The kite and the kite line were essentially invisible at their height, and perplexed first-years gathered around a string held vertically with no apparent object above it. One girl eventually concluded that a clear dome covered the campus, Munroe explained.

Remembering that fans tend to reproduce what he imagines, Munroe spoke of an image that he has waiting for somebody to actually create: Suspended by a system of weights and pulleys attached to beams, two people engaging in a light saber fight in midair. Citing fencing as one-dimensional sword fighting and regular sword fighting as 2-D, Munroe described this as a 3-D sword-fight, looking suggestively at the ceiling of Wiegand. A student wielding a green laser pointer in the audience marked out possible spots, to everyone’s amusement.

Munroe also made several important announcements. Recalling how readers have often e-mailed him for grammar and spelling mistakes on his strip, he created a new grammar standard on quotations, allowing question marks and exclamation marks inside or outside quotations (or both) depending on context. Munroe justified his standard by citing the lack of a legal governing body for the English language, unlike French; thus, he claimed publicly accepted standards of language like The Elements of Style hold no authority over his. Exploiting this logic, he also designated himself the president of the Internet, as no such office existed, and made it a non-voting position.

Among other raptor-related questions in the info session, Munroe was asked of his marital status, to which he bashfully admitted his difficulty in striking up conversation with the opposite sex in the academic circles of Boston, as everyone there knows his jokes by heart and would often finish them from mid-sentence. However, Munroe explained, this a small price to pay for entertaining the masses.

To everyone’s applause, Munroe accepted an invitation to participate in Capture the Flag with Stuff, a rule-heavy variation on the classic playground game put on by campus organization KGB.