Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Comic 505: In one act play form!

here be some wacky ideas
THE SCENE: A COFFEE SHOP IN BOSTON. RANDALL, a webcomic artist trying to conitnue to ride his washed up talent to fame and fortune, is with two friends, BILL and JIM.

RANDALL: Guys! Listen! I have an idea. What would happen if you were on a desert island and you-
JIM: Ok I would bring um Lord of the Rings, um...a popcorn popper...um...
RANDALL: NO I'm not doing that. You're on a desert island and-
BILL: A popcorn popper? Seriously? Why the fuck would you bring that? Are you bringing popcorn kernels also?
RANDALL: GUYS shut up. You're on an island and all you have is rocks. Rocks and sand. And you-
BILL: Oh I remember this one. You have to guess your eye color. It's green!
RANDALL: NO IT'S NOT THAT. Shut up guys. You have rocks and sand. And nothing else.
JIM: I would probably just drown myself.
RANDALL. No, there's no ocean. OK it's not really an island, it's just a massive desert.
JIM: How massive?
RANDALL: Super massive. Like actually infinite.
BILL: And nothing but rocks and sand.
RANDALL: That's it, yeah. So would you-
JIM: Yeah I'd say you'd die pretty fast.
RANDALL: NO YOU CAN'T DIE. You don't have to eat, you don't have to drink, you just have you, the rocks, and the sand.
JIM: How did you get there?
RANDALL: You - you don't remember.
BILL: And how long do stay?
RANDALL: Forever. And you don't die.
BILL: Can you kill yourself?
RANDALL: You don't want to kill yourself.
BILL: Yes I do.
JIM: So ok you are super bored forever ha ha that sucks the end.
RANDALL: NO. You have rocks. So what do you do?
BILL: Don't tell me you do math. That would make it even more boring.
RANDALL: You do math. But you could do all the math ever.
JIM: No, you don't. Because you don't know it all.
RANDALL: Shut up. You do all the math ever. And then you do all the physics ever.
BILL: Oh ok, well that does make it sound fun...
RANDALL: Shut up. And then you make a computer.
JIM: Out of rocks.
RANDALL: YES it's all just algorithms and math and memory and stuff. Which you could all do with rocks and squares and stuff.
JIM: Uh ok maybe I guess. Why are we doing this again?
RANDALL: Because eventually - eventually you could simulate particles!
BILL: Yeah, nothin' more exciting than particles!
RANDALL: Shut up. You could do it! You could.
JIM: Is your brain infinitely large? I mean there's a lot to remember about all that stuff.
RANDALL: Look. The point is you could do it, right? I think you could.
JIM: I dunno.
RANDALL: I think you could.
BILL: Whatever.

Today's comic was, I will admit, thought provoking. It was not, however, funny. It's one of those comics that belongs not on a webcomic site but on "Randall's Random Ideas Illustrated: The Blog." The only part that's a joke is the last panel, which I think sort of brings down the whole thing to a "ha ha, that whole thing was for a dumb joke about school being boring" level. Sort of retroactively diminishes the rest of the comic.


  1. I don't even think it qualifies as thought provoking. The idea that the universe as we know it could be a program / simulation is not a new idea. Nor is the observation that this program could be carried out in any medium. And we can even take the mind-blowing-ness a step further and observe that since the jostling of atoms against each other could be construed as computation it is quite possible that by shaking your glass of water you have inadvertently simulated a few nano-seconds of a universe populated by intelligent beings, giving them perhaps the shortest lifespans ever.

  2. I thought I'd comment on this, because this is by far the worst idea I have ever heard.

    You can't make a computer from rocks.

    It's like saying "if you have a desert with a shit-ton of abacuses you could have the processing power to create and play crysis"

    This is blatantly a flawed idea.

    What COULD however be done with unlimited sand, rocks and time is create silicon from sand, iron by extracting it from the rocks and from there create a computer...

    Finally, if you WERE able to simulate a universe, then why not make people there, immortal too?

    Terrible, terrible comic.

  3. I'm glad Randall did the comic, because this was hilarious.

  4. > Today's comic was, I will admit, thought provoking. It was not, however, funny.

    I do not think that all xkcd strips are *supposed* to be funny. For example, my favourite xkcd, the one about angular momentum: http://xkcd.com/162/ , is not humour, it is poetry.
    This one was indeed quite interesting, but, unfortunately, not new; I have seen similar ideas in some stories by Stanislaw Lem.

    > You can't make a computer from rocks.
    > It's like saying "if you have a desert with a shit-ton of abacuses you could have the processing power to create and play crysis"
    > This is blatantly a flawed idea.

    I do not think the idea is flawed. Could you explain why?

  5. I think whenever a webcomic author publishes a strip that casts himself as God, you have to wonder just how big their ego has gotten.

  6. I don't think he is making himself as God. The narrator is well, narrating.

    And I agree whole heartidly with Ilia. It seems to me that, the argument that an xkcd comic sucks just because it wasn't funny on purpose is a bit absurd considering the comic that we are critiquing here. Yes many of the comics that are suppose to be funny come up short in that arena and yes many of them do suck. But we have seen many times that he writes some comics foregoing the comedy.

    Now you may argue that because he under the guise of a "webcomic" that his strips need to be funny all the time, I would argue not. Generally yes, funny is needed. But sometimes (and once again, most especially in the case of xkcd), lets let a comic not fall under the parameters of actual comedy.

  7. I thought about this question and almost wrote another paragraph but then I was lazy. While generally I think that a webocmic should be comic, I occasionally managed to overlook it in the old xkcds because they were usually an occasional turn for the serious(ish) amid other funny strips. This one comes later, in between what I would call very failed attempts at comedy. So I see it as less of "ok, but to be serious for a second..." and more "fine, you don't like it than this time I'm not even going to try."

  8. So comics are only comics if they're funny? Hmm... Tell that to half the cartoonists out there. Honestly, you say Randall's grasping at straws, but you just seemed desperate to find something wrong with this today.

  9. Oh god, not again with this simulated universe and reappearing/disapearing matrix kittehs crap!

    What he's drawing with those rocks is a one-dimentional cellular automata

    Also, you can write yourself a whole model universe without one experiment, but you cannot write any good model of this universe without experimental data. That's why scientists made all sorts of weird theories that are now totally obsolete and look very strange to us.
    A man in a desert full of similar sized rocks... WHAT A BOLD IDEA! Yes, Mr. Randall, who need LHCs when you have SAND.

    GENTLEMEN AND LADIES, I think we've got here the worst xkcd strip yet. I can hardly wait to see what xkcd's future holds for us next!

  10. I liked the "eternity to do calculations" story, but the punchline was a groaner. It felt like Randall's version of the "Earth is a speck of dust" speech, except he tells the desert story (with image slides!) at the end of every public speaking gig.

    Besides, didn't Randall already give us a computer's-eye-view of this story? http://xkcd.com/371/

    Fun idea, poor punchline, and as Carl demonstrated, it would ONLY work in comic form.

  11. Ahahah. I could not wait to read your reaction to this and was definitely not disappointed.

    And "So comics are only comics if they're funny?"---Well, first, look up "comic" online for the most literal sense of the word [and perhaps try to avoid looking up "comoc" like I did because I suck at typing and it's not a word]: all definitions do seem to say that humor is a defining characteristic of comics. But I agree that comics have evolved and they can be serious and/or thought-provoking... which this wasn't, really. It was, as Carl said above, a failed attempt at humor. If he were trying to provoke thought, he'd probably have left it without the last two panels which tried to be funny. And they weren't. But since he tried to make it funny, it kind of ruined any attempt at being serious... since obviously he'd meant it all as a joke.

    Therefore: punchline ruined it. It probably would have been a mediocre comic without the two panels ruining the air of seriousness, or if the last two funny-achieving panels had actually done their job.

  12. I was actually pretty positive towards this. The punchline wasn't that funny, but I didn't think it ruined it.

    Not a great comic, but an improvement on what we've been seeing. Or so I thought.

  13. Nah, I can't hate this one, if only because I happened to read it before three hours of morning lectures. First time I've ever fit so snugly into the XKCD target audience, and it left me feeling rather tingly inside, but also rather dirty.

    Amanda: 'Comoc' is almost what we do, right? We see a comic, and we comock it mercilessly.


  14. AHAHAHAHAHH comercilessly....


    Anyway. Thank you, DoubleBlackbird. I don't quite understand your name.

  15. I just write his name 'blackbirdblackbird,' because why not?

    This one sort of... well, I didn't dislike it. It didn't provoke thought. But I enjoyed reading it for no real reason? Uh, and I kind of enjoyed the punchline. I'm a big fan of shaggy dog stories.

    (Captcha: flarmor! I WANT SOME FLARMOR.)

  16. The more I think about it, it seems like a vision of hell. A computer geek is punished in Hades by being forced to run a program on a rock computer for all eternity.

  17. The people who think that either (a) it must be funny [because it's a comic] or (b) it is a "failed attempt at being thought-provoking" remind me of people that criticize poetry because it doesn't rhyme well, has poor metering, etc.

    Why not just accept it at face value? If we were talking poetry, and as you read it, it gets your neurons firing (so to speak), then hasn't it done its job? Why must it fit into familiar genre cubby-holes?

    Implying that it "fails" at a particular genre doesn't mean that it fails altogether -- how can you be sure that Munroe was even ATTEMPTING for that particularly genre?

    And then there's the "thought-provoking" issue... must it really require that it be a "deep" topic in order to be declared thought-provoking? #271 (Power of One) isn't particularly "deep", but it's still interesting, and perhaps poetic (I'd have to check with my wife on that one, she's the English major).

    The existence of this blog (xkcdsucks) reminds me of #359 (Rock Band). (or, to a lesser extent, it reminds me of trying to compare Shakespeare to Byron by quantifying their traits and comparing the integrals of their graphs)

    I've read a couple of the single-comic critiques (the poison ivy / light bondage one, for example, or the "i'd tap that ___" one) and while I admit that the comics intention is, perhaps, clearer / more "effective" (inasmuch that comics can be "effective" at something) -- my immediate reaction is "So what?"

  18. Well, looks like we have a pretty big debate here. I hadn't read very much other stuff along these lines so it was interesting to me, but of course if you had read this idea then it would be a bit more lame, yes.

    Radishey - Yes, for a comic to be comic it must, in fact, be comic. Otherwise it's not comic, it's some other form of artistic expression ("comic books" vs "graphic novels" for example). And yes, I do think that at least half (probably more) of the "comics" out there suck. But only xkcd (to my mind) is so undeservedly popular and undeservedly considered funny. Other good mockeries of shitty comics - Garfield minus Garfield and Marmaduke Explained.

    Thomas - Can you tell me more about him using this story at the end of speeches? Do you know how long he's being doing this? Is it like "shit, I don't have an idea for a comic....oh I know I can just use that story I tell." Is it a sign of desperation? When have you seen him? I WANT ANSWERS, DAMMIT!

    Amanda, Jay - yeah, I think the fell-flat punchline and the fact that most of the recent comics have been pretty bad means that I have much less patience with this one. Had it not tried to be funny and had it appeared about 200 comics earlier I would probably like it more.

    I am loving the Comoc jokes.

    Rob - I don't know about Flarmor but I'm sure we could get a flame war going if we wanted. Any takers?

    Aaron - Ok, we can use your terminology. xkcd is poetry, and its sucky poetry. Look - "comic" means "funny." That is why a guy who reads poems at an open mike is not a stand up comic, he's a stand up poet or something. Besides, are you really trying to tell me that this comic was not meant as a joke? What was that panel then? It's all meant as a looooong setup to a pretty bad joke. Were it not for that panel, I would say that it was not trying to be funny, so I wouldn't criticize it for that. I would still accuse Randall of being out of ideas for humorous strips though.

    You really found Powers of One to be thought provoking? Have you seen Powers of Ten? I'm pretty sure that was meant to be an ironic, deliberately non-thought provoking parody.

    this blog is in many ways like Comic 359, if the people playing rock band in that were making a living off it and declared to be just as good as a real rock band. Nothing wrong with Randall having fun making the comic, just with everyone else telling him he's amazing.

    Read the Lame FAQs for more of my self-justification.

  19. Aaron: Oh no you didn't just say calling XKCD shit is like saying you don't like poetry because it doesn't rhyme.

    But since you brought up poetry, let me bring up a better analogy: saying XKCD is a failed attempt at thought-provoking is sort of like saying angsty teenage poetry is a failed attempt at making you sad. That is to say: it is shit, and you are identifying that it is shit, and then you are pointing out what it attempted to do and failed at--because it is shit.

    There is no failure to understand the genre here. There is also nothing wrong with expecting a comic to be funny. The bulk of the time, Randall is trying to be funny--or at least trying to get his loyal fans to say he is funny, which is basically the same thing.

    Incidentally, poetry with bad meter is shit. A free verse poem that is awkward and clunky because of badly executed meter is shit. Indeed, it's harder to write a good free verse poem than traditional verse, due to the fact that rather than simply ascribing to a structure of meter and rhyme one has to essentially wing it. What happens if I break here? Or if I open with this word instead of that one, or if this line has a jarring meter instead of a flowing one?

    And if you do it badly your poem is just shit. This is basically what happens with XKCD. Randall does 'funny' and 'thought-provoking' badly lately. End result? Bad comics.


    you are so much better at articulating this stuff than i am

  21. You should name your child Comoc!

    And he/she would start a website saying he/she is pointing the Iron Finger of Comockery!

    Okay I am getting too carried away.

    But yes, good job Rob; your explanation was spot-on.

  22. I haven't actually seen Randall use any comics during public speaking events or anything; it just seems like something he WOULD do, and this comic seems like a perfect finale for his tastes.

    *cue Q&A lineup of nerds who spend rest of allotted time debating validity of a stone-based computer*

  23. bah, forget about computers. if I wanted to read about computers I would go back to reading I Am A Strange Loop.

    there's precious little commenting on the two newest posts, just sayin'

  24. I am/was a writing student. People are not allowed to say "that's like saying you don't like a poem because it doesn't rhyme" unless they are prepared to fight to the death.

  25. To heck with you all, *I* really *LIKED* it.

    And to Maurik: YES, you can create a computer with rocks. Go study some fundamental computer science.

  26. What if you use the most important definition of a computer, namely "Something on which I can play Mario Bros. 3" ? I think that rocks could not do this.

  27. A rock turing machine with Super Mario Bros. 3 will be... the starting state will be painful. VERY LONG tape VERY! A man canno..t... wait, i'm talking about a man who was MAGICALLY transported to a far away magical land where he cannot die and there're only rocks and sand in unending quantities. I can safely bet this guy knows Mario Bros. 3's binary code by heart AND he can convert it to his own machine code. BY MAGIC!


    Magic. It works, bitches!

  28. This seems about as good a spot as any to weigh in about the "it's not supposed to be funny" comments, I guess.

    It's a webcomic. The comic part implies comedy. This has been beaten in to the ground. The point about "Randall Munroe's Illustrated Blog" has also been raised. What I suggest, to the people who think that XKCD does not have a requirement to be funny, is that Randall HAS A BLOG. These "insights" would be much better served by having the lame attempt at a joke removed, and simply transplanted to the already-existing blog, and leave the comic itself for that which is supposed to be funny. Why should the humour seekers amongst us suffer through what often comes across as pseudo-intellectualism due to a misunderstanding of the issue (as with the DRM comic), just because he can't come up with something good?

    I submit that it would be much better to go to a 2x or even 1x weekly update schedule of actual comics, instead of these weak offerings. If he comes up with something completely, totally, awesomely amazing, then he can consider putting it in the comic portion. But it would just be an extra update, not a replacement for the comic. This would serve to strengthen both the "insights" as the bad jokes are removed, and the "comics" as less time would be wasted on shoehorning bad jokes in where they don't work. Even if it resulted in fewer updates for the comic, it would still create a stronger product.

    As for a computer made out of sand, you could technically calculate entire universes, with enough time and rocks, but with no output device, or even a compiler, it would simply act as a storage medium for what the mind was coming up with. There would be no processor besides the brain to make decisions, or calculate effects, and no way to view the effects anyways. It would still just be in the creator's imagination. It's just a geeky retread of the "What if all the world is a dream, and we die when the sleeper awakens?" idea.

  29. Mike said:
    "I take everything literally and will never let words evolve into other meanings from the meanings I got used to associate them with. In short, etymology baaaaad! Mike smaaaash!"

    Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen and Ghost In The Shell are all serious business and I still call them comics.

    What do you have to say about that, Mr. Can't-get-used-to-new-associations-with-words?

  30. well that's why people invented the phrase "graphic novel" but even so:

    Books like that (note: not webcomics released one or two panels at a time, but released whole issues or books at a time) were never supposed to be funny. It's not like Art Spiegelman started out Maus with a bunch of jokes about animals and then was like "aw fuck it, i'm out of jokes, let's get serious and talk about the holocaust".

    But that's what Randy did. And moreover, that's how he got his fanbase. If he had just started with the crap he has now, no one would care. He's still just coasting on the humor he had hundreds of comics ago.

    Mike: I agree with everything you wrote. Obviously.

  31. triggur: "And to Maurik: YES, you can create a computer with rocks. Go study some fundamental computer science."

    Maybe if you weren't such a pretentious and smug shitstain, you'd realize that an analog computer designed to simulate anything would need a continuous physical force driving it to effectively do any computation whatsoever. Merely putting stones on the ground is like drawing an elaborate diagram on a piece of paper then calling that a computer. Thus the entire point of the comic is rendered moot even within the confines of its own premise! Triggur, I hope you and everyone you love die in a fire, you fake fuck.

    Are all you xkcd-loving turds really this easy to impress? Just draw some philosophy 101 thought-experiment, use CompSci concepts like Turing completeness like it wasn't fucking obvious, maybe add in a Feynman diagram and other references to QM in there so you can feel superior to all the plebeians who have better things to do than tangentially caring about quantum mechanics (which I just know none of you xkcd-tards understand even in the slightest), and that's all it takes to blow your feeble minds? Really?

    I cringe when I think back at the time when I liked xkcd.

  32. Richard: You're (probably deliberately) overlooking that the guy moving the rocks is also part of the system.

    Of course, the rocks alone isn't the computer - so your little "look how superior I am"-rant to triggur is correct with one of the possible readings of the phrase "you can create a computer with rocks". That's not the only possible reading, mind you; he might entirely well have meant that his generic "you" would have to do the actual computation, merely using the rocks in the process of doing so.

    Indeed, looking at the context makes that the obvious choice, which means you are either bad at understanding people, or deliberately misread them so you have an excuse to bring out the generic insults.

  33. The last good xkcd comic. Definitely one of the most thought provoking of all. This comic is like that last breath of air a drowning victim gets in before plunging to their watery death. It wasn't as good and full as the previous ones, but it certainly was the last one that was really worth it.

    For those who are confused: the rocks are 1-D cellular automata. Wolfram's Rule 110 is turing complete, and could be used to make a computer. Assuming an infinite amount of time, space, and rocks you could make a simulation of the universe like this. Wolfram's rules are simple, so all you need to do is set the first row of the automation to the program, and run down the line of rocks doing the next row of automation. Then you go down again and do the next row, and the next, and it runs the program.

    Absolutely stunning!

  34. you definiatly could make a computer out of rocks like that and yes you could play video games on it. That is exactly what a computer is, except we use electronically stored 1's and zeros instead of rocks.

  35. ...but we also have a monitor which translates those ones and zeros into images which we can comprehend.

    also: the point is this comic is dumb, not about the theory of computers or whatever.