With its rich history of research and innovation, Cambridge has always celebrated its love for science – and this is nowhere more apparent than at the Cambridge Science Festival, which has been running every year since 1994. This year, the festival ran from 10 to 25 March and included thought provoking talks, workshops and exhibitions on some of the latest advances in science.
Here’s a short rundown on what happened at the festival:
Learning neuroscience while knitting
Venue: Cambridge Central Library
Goal: Knit a giant fuzzy brain!
Guided by textile artist Pat Pillai, participants knit together woollen creations shaped to resemble neurons, as they listened to leading neurologists speak about the latest advances in the field. Those who did not know how to knit were free to cobble together mock neurons with colourful yarn wool and drain pipes. The individual “neurons” were then joined together from axon to dendrite to form a giant woolly “brain” which was put on display at various venues across the city.
An ambitious project that could change how we treat diseases
On March 14, genetic scientists Dr. David Bentley, Chief Scientist at Illumina, and Professor Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist at Genomics England, gave a talk on the 100,000 Genomes Project and the massive impact it could have on public health and research into genetic diseases. The 100,000 Genome Project is an ambitious attempt to sequence the genome of 100,000 individuals to learn more about hereditary diseases. According to Professor Caulfield, the most impressive aspect of the project was that with the involvement of NHS Genomic Medicine Centres, it had become possible to collect samples from selected patients across England.
Workshops on building robots
The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge, organised a robotics workshop for school children at their institute on Coldham’s Road, Cambridge. Nearly 15 to 20 children of all ages learnt to build circuits on a bread board and program microchips to run simple functions, in this case; to create a moving robot which could sense obstacles in their path.
The Centre for Computing History houses some of the earliest computers in existence (including parts of the world’s first commercial computer, LEO I), and regularly hosts workshops for schoolchildren, mostly in the 8-14 age group. “We organise a lot of programming and electronics workshops. On the old BBC Micros, we do a basic ‘Learn to program in BASIC’ session and for the slightly older children, we run a workshop called ‘Zeroes and Ones, where they create a game around a character they have designed,” said Anjali Das, Head of Learning, Centre for Computing History. It’s not just all work and no play – the centre regularly hosts Game Nights were the young and the ‘young at heart’ can have a go on 90s-style arcade games.
A place for discussion and debate
The best part of the Cambridge Science Festival was that the discussions did not remain confined to sound-proofed auditoriums. Various universities offered Open Days where residents could visit their campuses. Coffee shops and open bars stayed open later than usual and turned into makeshift venues for intense discussions on science. And if there was ever a shred of doubt whether people really cared about science, pretty much every talk had sold out two days in advance. That’s definitely a win for science!
Reflections on spring cleaning during the pandemic
Last Monday we cleaned the house. After three months of juggling between the bed, the sofa and the one table in the house to work from home, my partner and I got my little IKEA desk from the office to set up a workspace for me.
The only issue was that the desk, brought in to accommodate the expected months of work from home, no longer felt that small in our little 1BHK. Gone was the space to roll out a yoga mat and the prime real estate that in the husband’s words was ‘where the TV is supposed to go’.
And while I did enjoy having prime estate to myself, there was no getting around the fact that the current arrangement left very little space to do anything else in the room.
And so we cleaned. We dusted and decluttered and threw things out like our lives depended on it.
We banished the former solo desk to the far end of the room, stacking the several bags of luggage within themselves so there was space in the closet to fit a small shelf, the laundry bag and our little Henry. (Full credit to my better half for the idea and implementation.)
In went all the knick-knacks that had been lounging homeless in the living room, and out went dozens of plastic bags and cardboard boxes kept ‘just in case’. Out went all the unused batteries, the fluff behind the sofa, and the keepsake champagne bottle we brought back from our honeymoon.
And suddenly, there was so much of space.
It was a warm sunny afternoon when we began, and by the time we were done, the sunlight had paled and the birdsong had disappeared. It felt quiet, both inside and out; like there was space to think new thoughts, to bring to life new dreams.
A few days later I came across a quote that resonated deeply: “You cannot bring something new into your lives if you don’t make space for it.”
And by clearing the mental space clutter takes up, it felt like we had expanded our horizon of possibilities.
I finally had a desk of my own to write.
I could look around the drawing room and enjoy the newfound light and space, I could sit by the windowside and enjoy the bird song. And I finally started to feel at home.
A lot of home improvement articles, and indeed the entire #homespo movement, tend to focus on people with already perfect homes.
But what if you are someone juggling three kids in a small flat, or one among the thousands sharing workspace with family or housemates due to COVID-19? Do you just accept that ‘that perfect home’ is several pay checks away, or do you find your oasis with what you’ve got? I’m happy to report that with what we had, a little creativity and a decent amount of hard work, we were able to turn our little flat into a haven of our own.
We’ve got to let space in to our lives, or else we keep replying, responding, reacting — never feeling. And we’ve got to do it now, instead of waiting for an imaginary time in the future when everything will fall into place. As someone wisely said, if you wait for everything to be perfect until you are happy, you’ll wait forever.
And so, my friends, my advice to you as we move out of lockdown and back to a ‘new normal’ is to take the time to engage in some good old spring cleaning. Clear out the cobwebs, wipe down the table tops. Throw out those paper streamers you’ve kept for forever. Stuff anything that doesn’t fit behind closed doors, if you’re able to. You’ll get there eventually, and the feeling of satisfaction at the end will make everything worth the effort. You deserve a home that lets you breathe – even if it’s not perfect yet.
Of course, the magic died a bit when the very next day we had to tackle a mountain of dishes, and knowing me, it is quite possible the spotless table tops will soon be taken over by invisible minions. But I think I will be better knowing it’s just one good spring clean away.
I met Kavitha, a chirpy girl with a winning smile, on the first day of the dropout survey carried out by volunteers of Child Rights and You. “School hogthira?” I asked, “Do you go to school?” She looked up and nodded, half-yes, half-no, then shyly turned away. “Tamil teriyuma?” I egged on. It turned out she did. For the next half hour she became my translator, translating my pidgin Tamil into Kannada as we went from door-to-door preparing a list of children who had dropped out of school in a sprawling urban slum in NS Palya, Bangalore.
The area, which has not been notified, lies in the looming shadow of a proposed Taj Gateway project. There are 597 slum areas in Bangalore city, of which 387 have been notified under the Karnataka Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1973.
Kavitha is all of ten. She dropped out of school last year. She lives with her father and three younger siblings in a small shanty in the slum. Her younger brother Jairam shows signs of severe mental retardation. Born prematurely, his head was undersized, and his limbs thin and spindly. He was eight but looked like a toddler. When he smiled, his carie-filled, crooked-teeth grin stretched from ear to ear. There were two more children, one four, the other less than a year old.
Kavitha’s father had pulled her out of school to look after her younger siblings. If the boy could be sent to a special school, he said, he would send Kavitha to school. He was reluctant to send the younger children to the nearby anganwadi, as he felt the anganwadi teacher and helper did a half-hearted job of looking after the children. There are at least 250 kids below six residing in the slum area, but only about thirty to forty go to any of the nearby anganwadis.
In urban slums like NS Palya, anganwadis are often a pale imitation of what they were envisioned to be under the Integrated Child Development System (ICDS), mooted by the Indian government in 1976. Under ICDS, anganwadis were expected to function as one-stop crèche and nutrition centres for children from the age of zero to six, and for expectant mothers. Every anganwadi is run by an anganwadi teacher and a helper. They are expected to give children basic pre-school education, provide them one nutritious meal in a day, and ensure the children receive vaccines and mineral supplements on schedule. Anganwadis were set up to be the first defence in detecting and correcting malnourishment in children.
Although the NS Palya slum has three sanctioned anganwadis, only two have been functioning in the past one year. Neither is equipped with toilets or electricity. In a room barely large enough to seat twelve, twenty to thirty children sit cooped together. One of the residents said she did not send her kids to the anganwadi because there were no toilets. Another felt that the anganwadi teacher did not look after the kids properly.
One of the activities volunteers from Child Rights and You(CRY) engage in, in Bangalore is to conduct monthly surveys in the community, to isolate and work on issues where child rights are being violated: eg. Conducting regular detection of cases of malnourishment (by weighing children), enrolling children in anganwadis and collating the details on dropouts in a particular community. The focus is primarily on the right to education, nutrition and health. Volunteers meet community members to convince them to send their children to school or to the nearby anganwadi. It is a hit-and-miss approach, one liable to fail, but each success is a big deal for us. This year, we succeeded in getting around twelve children enrolled in school, but ensuring that they continue to go to school remains a herculean task.
Armed with information collected from volunteers across the city, CRY members engage with Block Development Officers in each area to push for basic facilities and draw attention to issues being sidelined. CRY has been mildly successful in this regard; in Koramangala, volunteers put up posters seeking recruitments for the post of anganwadi teacher when the post fell vacant and succeeded in getting a teacher recruited. After much badgering, authorities constructed a pakka floor in one of the anganwadis in NS Palya in 2012.
When we met Kavitha two weeks later, she was looking after her siblings, carrying her little sister on her hip. This had become her routine. When the other children in the slum donned their yellowed uniforms to march to school, she stayed back to cook, sweep the house and look after the little ones. Where’s your mother? I ask. She’s at work, she replies. She gives the same reply each time.
Children engaged in informal labour form a major percentage of dropouts in the country. Several kids drop out because both parents work and there is no one to look after the younger siblings. Anganwadi centres should ideally help in this regard, but the dinghy cramped quarters of anganwadis in most slum areas are hardly conducive for nurturing toddlers. During the survey, we encountered a few children who said they did not go to school because the teachers beat them.
More worryingly, some of the children in the community were engaged in formal child labour as well. In a stone quarry close to the slum, we spotted children as young as ten and twelve breaking stones into smaller chunks. After a conversation with the quarry owner, she agreed to send the children to school, probably out of fear of being reported. All five joined, and a month later, three were continuing classes.
Another major reason for dropouts, cited by teachers at the nearest government school, was migration. Quite a few slum residents were daily wage earners working with construction companies and moved from area to area depending on the availability of work, disrupting their children’s education.
Several teenagers in the area, who had dropped out of the system for various reasons, were keen to continue their studies. Mani, 17, left studies after class six and now worked in a mechanic workshop. Kumar, 16, was employed as housekeeping staff at a marriage hall. He was eager to get a 10th pass certificate so he could improve his job prospects. He dropped out in class eight. Both are examples of children who fall out due to a crack in the Right to Education Act: it addresses the needs of children till the age of 14. From the age of six to 14, according to provisions under the Act, no school can deny a child admission on the basis of lack of documents.
Unfortunately, as soon as the children reach an age when they begin to think for themselves and understand the need for an education, the law forsakes them. As for the girls, many were made to stop studies when they hit puberty and were married off early. Even though they looked barely fifteen, but had learnt to answer “eighteen” when asked their age. One such girl had just delivered a baby that was beginning to show signs of malnourishment.
Meanwhile, there was little progress on Kavitha’s front. Her father said he had checked with several special schools but none were willing to admit Jairam. Nearby special schools did not have pick-up-and-drop facilities and one residential school for special children that was willing to admit the boy, was far from the city limits. Although under the Right to Education Act, children with disabilities have as much right to access to free and compulsory education, this rarely works out given ground realities. Government schools, which are crowded and understaffed in poorer neighbourhoods, lack the expertise to deal with such children. Special schools are expensive, and the few that cater to the economically-disadvantaged get filled up quickly.
Over the weeks, her father seemed less and less optimistic about getting Kavitha and Jairam into school. Even Kavitha seemed to have lost her sprightly manner and had resigned herself to domestic drudgery.
In September, when we met them last, Kavitha’s father begged us to leave him alone.“I have gone to every school possible and no one is agreeing to take my son,” he said.
The cycle of poverty is hard to escape from. Kavita is a bright child. Her father, at least initially, was keen to get her back to school. But who would look after her siblings, especially Jairam? He could not be left at the anganwadi. No school was willing to take him so late in the year. A special child requires a lot of care and treatment, and it was nearly impossible for his family to provide this. Then there was the issue of the younger children. Perhaps a better-run ICDS system would have helped reduce Kavitha’s burdens. How does one get a girl to school when she had three younger siblings to look after, one with mental disabilities? How do you convince her that she can get out of this vicious cycle?
Jairam put his arms out, signalling that he wanted to be picked. Someday, his sister will grudge him for stealing her childhood. Till then, she will carry him, bathe him and feed him, while government machinery and society pointedly look the other way.
(Based on a survey of drop-out children conducted between May and August 2014 by volunteers of Child Rights and You in NS Palya, Bengaluru. First published in thealternative.in. Photo credit: Sakshi Jain. Data on slums in Bengaluru taken from http://ksdb.kar.nic.in/ )
Triclosan-based antibacterial products such as handwash and hand sanitisers are no more effective than soaps
It’s in your soap, handwash, talcum powder and even in the wall paint. In a world obsessed with cleanliness, antimicrobial agents like triclosan have been touted as the panacea for a disease-free world. However, their usage remains controversial: experts say indiscriminate usage of antimicrobial agents like triclosan over the years has led to bacteria developing resistance to them, leading to the need for stronger chemicals. Are we setting ourselves up for a world of superbugs by putting them in anything and everything?
No miracle guard, this
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that effective September 2017, it would prohibit the sale of non-medical soap containing triclosan or 18 other ingredients marketed as antimicrobials, as it did not find these products to be any more effective than ordinary soaps.
Opinion is divided among experts: while some feel the move was long called for, physicians weigh in that such antibacterial products continue to be useful in certain situations.
Triclosan was initially used for hospital environments, but its use spread as a miracle guard against infection. “Triclosan is being used in toothpaste, handwash, talcum powder, etc. because companies thought it was a panacea for all, without understanding that with indiscriminate usage, bacteria can developed a resistance to the chemical,” says Dipshikha Chakravortty, associate professor, Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
Asha Benkappa, director of Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health, Bengaluru, says these products are a “gimmick” as the body has its own self-cleaning bacteria, commensals, which keep the skin clean. “Antimicrobial agents in soaps and handwashes are not required. By using antimicrobial agents indiscriminately you are removing useful commensal bacteria which help to ward off infection,” she says, adding, “Regular soap is gentle on our skin and helps maintain commensols.”
Soap is good enough
Dr. Chakravortty also feels scrubbing with soap and water is better than using hand sanitisers, as in the latter case, the dead bacteria remain on the skin: “Certain molecules, known as lipopolysaccharides, which are specific to gram-negative bacteria, and lipoteichoic acid, specific to gram-positive bacteria, get dislodged when the bacteria are killed by antibacterial agents. They remain on the surface of your hands and can get into your gut, causing other inflammatory complications. Scrubbing with soap and water is a hundred times better.” Using alcohol for disinfection was better as bacteria could not develop resistance to alcohol. A 2013 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases also showed that antibacterial components were no more effective than ordinary soaps at preventing infectious diseases.
However, it would be unwise to disown antibacterial agents completely. Senior physician Kumar at K.C. General Hospital, Bengaluru, says antimicrobial agents are required in infection-prone situations. “Antimicrobials are recommended for sanitation workers, farmers working in the fields, or in the presence of someone with an infection,” he says. However, he adds, such products should be used in the right quantity, as overuse does not increase effectiveness.
Behind the multi-storeyed IBM House that looms over Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru is a maze of bylanes that form Sudarshan Layout. Families and their belongings spill out of the tiny one-storey buildings onto the narrow lanes.
Most of the residents in the slums here have not studied beyond primary school and make a living as labourers and domestic helps, but their children are pursuing a life far beyond what their parents ever thought possible.
Take Manikanthan Vellikanan (25), the son of a daily-wage worker, who dreams of working with the big names of the animation industry such as DreamWorks or Moving Picture Company. His friend Renuka (22), the daughter of a sweeper, wants to get a government job. Another young woman from the neighbourhood, Saraswati (27), was forced by her family to take up domestic work after finishing school, but fought with her parents to go to college. “I now work as an IT purchasing officer in a micro-finance company,” she says. She earns Rs. 20,000 a month and dreams of a better paying job in the same sector.
The irony of a technology giant next to this warren of slums is not lost on Saraswati or any of their friends who, until eight years ago, had not even seen a computer. But everything changed in 2008, when two software engineers, Balaji and Senthil, along with other volunteers from the Free Software Movement of Karnataka (FSMK), decided to open a community centre in the area. In the basement of an unused building, children from the slum learnt how to wield a mouse and use open source software to gain skills that would give them a toehold in an arena filled with white-collar employees.
“Have you seen The Jungle Book,” asks Mani, who lost his legs to polio at a young age. He manoeuvres his tri-wheeler through the familiar, narrow lanes with ease. In Jon Favreau’s 3D rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, young Mowgli hurtles through the trees of a lush Indian forest as the wolves keep pace on the ground below. “Most of the animation was done here in Bengaluru,” he says.
Mani commutes on his tri-wheeler to his college in Koramangala, where he is doing his final year of BA in Animation and Visual Effects. He credits the centre, where he learned GIMP, an open-source photo editing software, for his interest and skill in animation.
Renuka, who now works as an assistant to a doctor in a clinic and earns Rs. 8,000 a month, is grateful to the volunteers of the FSMK for helping her complete her education. She holds a degree in Commerce, and is keen on getting a government job in the future. “I was always advised to finish my studies first, even when it became difficult to arrange for fees,” she says.
Almost all the young students give back to the centre, which is still running strong. Renuka volunteers at the computer centre and guides a new batch. “I want to see these kids gain what I did,” she says.
The Ambedkar Community Computer Centre is now run by a fresh group of volunteers and community members. It was closed for a few years in between, but reopened last year on the top floor of the same building where Mani and Renuka had studied years ago. Today, former students have become teachers. Children learn on two computers that use open software, and those interested are taught additional skills, including image editing software and Web design.
“These children have to compete with kids from private schools when they get to college levels. We try to give them a chance to be on an equal footing by familiarising them with technology,” says Shijil, a software engineer and FSMK member, who currently teaches at the centre. It’s why the children are also taught Spoken English and general science concepts.
Last year, Renuka and others held a meeting to convince parents to send their children to the centre. Twenty children came on the first day of class, a motley crowd daring to dream big.
Over the past decade, contract sanitary workers in Bengaluru have been waging a sustained fight against the contractor mafia which controls the management of garbage generated in India’s thriving metropolis, Bengaluru. The protest intensified last year with more than 5,000 sanitary workers or pourakarmikas striking work over different intervals, forcing the civic municipal body to sit up and take note.
Although in last June, the Karnataka government promised to regularise the services of 11,000 contract pourakarmikas working in the state, the story on the ground has been one of missed deadlines and failed promises. Based on reports published in The Hindu, here is a timeline of events starting from the first protest organised on Women’s Day 2017:
When Jonathan Gil Harris flew to India after taking Hindi lessons in America, he did not expect to find he had learnt a language that no one in the country spoke.
“I went to a man on the street and asked, “ Kripaya bataaye, vishwavidyala ka pustakalaya kahaan hai (please tell me where the university library is?)”, and the response I got was “Eh?”, he told the audience at a session called ‘Global Desi: On Being Both Foreign and Indian’ during the first edition of The Huddle. It was only later that he was introduced to the living language which was a “ khichdi” of Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and English.
While Harris, the dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University, eventually learnt a more “useful” Hindi from Bollywood films, actor and model Padma Lakshmi took the reverse route — having grown up in America and Europe, she became a symbol of the “exotic Indian” to the West. The two global citizens, along with The Economist’s India correspondent Alex Travelli, joined in a conversation with Veena Venugopal, the editor of BLink, on what being a ‘global desi’ entailed.
For Padma Lakshmi, her biggest anchor to her culture was the frequent trips she took as a child to India. “From age five to 17, I spent three out of 12 months of the year in India,” she said. Being Indian gave her the temerity to explore Indian cooking and, as a young girl, to teach her neighbours how to cook with curry leaves. “I would never have been able to write a book on spices had I not crossed oceans and cultures,” she explained.
For Alex Travelli, who is married to a Bengali and settled in New Delhi, the challenge is to raise his son without falling into the bubble expatriates often live in. “I want him to go to an Indian school, and not one of the international schools, so that he grows up as an Indian, speaking the language of the street,” Travelli said.
N Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, had a question for Harris on the various forms of English he had encountered in the country. Harris replied that there were two ways of looking at English spoken in India. “One is that it is something brought by the British that Indians need to give up. Another is, to see it as one of the many Indian languages.”
Pointing out that English too was born of the confluence of many languages, he said, “For this reason I consider English a fundamentally Indian language.”
Sandhya (15) (name changed), a class 10 student from Madivala, dropped out of school in September last owing to health issues. She took up work at a nearby supermarket, earning Rs. 5,000 a month. Her mother, who works as housekeeping staff in a nearby hospital, is worried that she will not finish her education, but admits the extra money goes to meeting family expenses. When the roll call for class 10 came out, she did not have sufficient attendance to give the exam, and lost a year.
A friend of hers joined the supermarket after she failed her class 10 and did not want to give the examination again. But Sandhya stood a chance to not just pass, but pass well. “She’s a bright student,” say teachers at the government school where she studied. Why didn’t you apply when the dates were open, they ask her.
Illustration: Sebastian Francis
At the supermarket in question, I spotted a couple of girls working who looked younger than 16. When asked their age, one giggled and said, “I’m 18,” and pointing to another, “she’s 19”. She claimed she looked younger because of her short stature.
“Many small shops look for children in this age group to recruit, as they will be ready to work for lower pay, and they aren’t on the wrong side of the law,” said Rajakumari Michael of Child Rights and You. While the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits children working up to the age of 14, it is silent on the case of those on the threshold of adulthood, in the 14 to 18 age group. “In one instance, a petrol bunk recruited a boy of class 9 and asked him to get his classmates also to join for the same work.”
Girls seem the worst sufferers; once they drop out of school, they face pressure from their family to get married, or to get a job and look after their younger siblings.
To add to the confusion, the Juvenile Justice Act defines a juvenile as any child up to the age of 18. If, for instance, a 16-year-old works as a domestic help (not counted as hazardous work), and files a complaint of harassment, she is eligible for protection under the Juvenile Justice Act.
Where to draw the line
“There is huge confusion on where to draw the line,” said Meena K. Jain, chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee (Bengaluru Urban), “There are children who go to school and go to work. There are others who drop out because they have no option but to earn for the family.”
“There is a lot of effort being put in to let children after class 10 to do both, study and earn on the side, with fixed guidelines in place to ensure their rights are not violated,” added Ms. Jain.
India has ratified the U.N. Convention of Child Rights, which states that “a child means every human being below the age of 18 years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”
Neither the RTE Act nor the Child Labour Act supports the child beyond the age of 14. They tend to treat the child as adults. In doing so, the child is open to exploitation and abuse. They also do not acquire the skills that will bring them out of poverty. – Suma Ravi, Regional Director South, Child Rights and You
As a four-year-old, web cartoonist Grant Snider wanted to study dragons, dinosaurs and drawing, in that order. He still loves dragons and dinosaurs, but it is his drawings, sometimes whimsical, sometimes self-introspective, but always charming, that have endeared him to millions of fans worldwide. His weekly web-comic Incidental Comicsexplores puzzles of life, art, philosophy and parenting, through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. The following is part of an interview done for Reading Hour in April 2015.
Who are your major inspirations when it comes to drawing comics? Some favourites among the current crop?
My all-time favorites include Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Matt Groening (Life in Hell), and Roz Chast and Saul Steinberg (The New Yorker). Some of my favourite contemporary cartoonists are Tom Gauld and Lilli Carre.
Your comics cover art, music, design and typography; and you’re studying to be an orthodontist. How do you juggle these separate identities?
My job as an orthodontist helps keep me grounded in real life while supporting my family. It’s also a highly visual, very social profession that can be a lot of fun. Comics help me explore my numerous outside interests – art, music, literature, etc. It’s challenging, cerebral, and isolating work, but also hugely rewarding.
Who is your favourite superhero/comic-strip character?
Bongo the one-eared rabbit from Life in Hell. He’s a perfect representation of the anxieties, big questions, and small rebellions of childhood and beyond.
How do you see the field of online comics developing in the days to come? Do you see it becoming profitable?
The internet is a wonderful place to share work and has become my primary place of publication. There are certainly ways to build a profitable online comics enterprise – many cartoonists are achieving this – but it takes time and thinking outside the traditional ways of the publishing world. Ads and merchandise are a couple of ways web cartoonists currently make money. For me, it’s more important to focus on making great comics. Making great money off comics is a less important concern.
Much of your work is minimalistic in nature; you’ve done a brilliant strip on the essence of minimalism. Another strip, The Nature of Ambition, went viral and appeared in several top publications. How does your personal philosophy reflect in your work?
I often make strips with a philosophical or inspirational message. But I try to undermine an excess of positivity with a grounded sense of humour. I’m interested in self-improvement, but failure is real, and it’s much funnier than success.
Do you consider comics to be a form of high-art or low-art?
Both – just as a painting can be high or low art, comics is a medium with an unbelievably broad range of expression. Chris Ware’s comics are high art and literature. Even the greatest newspaper comics (Peanuts, Cul De Sac, etc.) could be labelled low art. The comics of Dan Clowes manage to be both high and low art at the same time. Still, I think it’s a distinction most cartoonists give no thought to whatsoever.
You have often cited Bill Watterson as one of your biggest inspirations. Mr. Watterson is always seen as someone who didn’t ‘sell out’ to corporates. Your views about merchandising comics…?
Watterson took a principled and well-reasoned stand in refusing to merchandise his creation. Conversely, Charles Schulz made a sizeable fortune licensing his Peanuts characters. Both had hugely successful and culturally important creations. So I think it’s possible to merchandise comics without diminishing their integrity, but I respect cartoonists who decide to retain complete control of their characters.
Looking back, how has your art changed over the years? And what role has it played in your life?
Since I began creating comics, my style has changed considerably. I use digital colour now, instead of working in black and white. I pay more attention to simplicity and clarity in individual panels, sometimes at the expense of expressiveness of line. I’ve tried to develop a voice that is more personal – sometimes this means I use less humor and more thoughtful exploration as my default perspective for writing. My writing and drawing has been a constant source of fascination and frustration. There is always a new project to complete and a new idea to pursue. I’ve tried to find a good balance between my art, my non-creative work (orthodontics), and my family life, but I constantly have to reevaluate this balance to make sure I’m not neglecting one part of my life.
Tell us a little about the process of going from idea to JPEG. How long does it typically take?
It starts with a quick sketch jotted in pen in one of my notebooks or whatever piece of paper is close by. If the idea strikes me when I return to it later, I then sketch it very roughly in my typical page format. If the writing and drawing are working, I go through multiple re-drawings and revisions to tighten the text and linework, until I have a final inked page. More often, it ends up being on several scraps of paper since I’m a deranged perfectionist. I then shade with marker, scan the drawing, and add colour and final revisions in Photoshop. This can take anywhere from a single exhausting day to most of a week – I find it more mentally healthy when I split up the task over several weekday mornings.
You have a twin with whom you apparently had drawing duels when you were growing up! Is he an artist too?
Yes! My twin brother is an architectural designer as well as an illustrator. His drawings of buildings and concert posters for his band are excellent. He’s also the unseen, uncredited editor on most of my work.
This one is for the readers: could you offer some tips on how to find creative inspiration?
My favourite places to find inspiration are illustrated books and art museums. I seek out any quiet place where I can retreat into my own thoughts. This is difficult – modern life tries its hardest to pull me in the opposite direction.