Saturday, July 31, 2010

Comic 773: Not the Info You're Looking For

it looks like you are stalking your professors
[alt: People go to the website because they can't wait for the next alumni magazine, right? What do you mean, you want a campus map? One of our students made one as a CS class project back in '01! You can click to zoom and everything!]

I think no word describes this comic better than "boring." Or, if you allow me three words, "Really, really boring." Not only is it a graph joke - the last refuge of the crappy comic author - but a Venn diagram comic, a place which I think deserves a special place in graph-comic hell. Not only because they take little to no thought, but also because they are boring to look at, especially the two-circles-and-one-overlapping-area ones. That's not to say that all Venn diagram comics are bad, just that nearly all of them are.

This is, of course, no exception. The joke is about the relative usefulness of college websites. What Randall is doing with this, having been out of school for several years, is beyond me. Actually, no, it's not - given that most visitors to the main page of a school's site are prospective students, I know exactly what he's doing: Appealing to high school students, as usual.

But in this case I'll ignore that, because there are bigger problem with this comic. First off, the joke. The punchline comes in the overlapping segment, as is usual with Venn Diagram jokes (for example.) I don't think anyone would disagree that the punchline to this comic is "the one thing that university websites have that people are actually looking for is the full name of the University." Now, step back a bit and read that again. I basically did a double take with this punchline where I read it, shrugged, thought it was dumb, and then had this realization that it is not merely "dumb," it is in fact mind-blowingly shitty. What college has so complicated a name that you need to get the entire thing written out for you? I mean I am sure there are a few where you don't know the exact phrase (like "ohio state university" vs "the ohio state university") but a) that happens in only a tiny fraction of colleges and b) it doesn't matter. If you all made a list of the 25 reasons you go to university websites, would this be on there? Of course not. So why is it on this list? Alas, humor is generally about using unusual means to get at the core truth of a topic, and in this case, there is no truth there. It's based on random stuff he made up that no one can relate to.

Now, it could be said that one might be able to relate to the general concept of not being able to find what one needs on a college website. That's a terrible joke for a few reasons (including the fact that colleges generally spend a lot of effort to make fancy, well designed sites, so this is just wrong, and the fact that if you want to mock crappy websites a venn diagram with an out-of-nowhere punchline is a crappy way to do it) but let's pretend he has a point. Are University websites poorly designed?

Of course, there's no clear answer to that, because they vary. So I just picked two completely at random and looked at whether it was hard to find the information Randall claims people are looking for but cannot find. The first randomly chosen school was Christopher Newport University, where Randall went to college (click for actual size):
You'll note that I've highlighted a few relevant links from - gasp! - the front page. Let's take another example though, say, i don't know, MIT, the place Randall wanted to go to college and likes to pretend he is currently attending:
Again, a few relevant links are highlighted.

Now it's true that there are some things Randall says people are looking for when they go to a University website, like campus police phone numbers, that are not on these sites. Well, to be accurate, they are on the sites, just not on the front pages. Now we get to another central problem here: Randall is comparing "what people want" with "what is on the front page." But there's no good reason for him to do that. People want any of a thousand things when they go to a University website, but you can't put them all on the front page. It would be impossible to find your way around and it would look like shit.

Luckily, most web designers have learned that you can created other web pages, and merely link to them from the front page. So if you have a long list of course names and numbers, rather than put all the names and all the numbers on the front page, you can have an "Academics" link that takes you there! Astounding. Likewise, a visitor to may be looking for a certain comic. Say (to take one actually at random this time), the one about accidentally hearing the power rangers song whilst sexin' it up. But HOLY FUCKING MOTHER OF GOD, it is not there on the front page of xkcd! Someone might be looking to purchase xkcd merchandise, yet to do so, they would have to click to another page, oh my god. This is what I would call "web design for complete idiots" and yet it seems to be confusing Randall Munroe for some reason.

It's almost like Colleges have an image of themselves they want to present - usually something along the lines of, "our students are happy, our faculty make amazing discoveries, and our alumni do great things." They're presenting a brand, basically, and - sweet jesus! - their websites reflect this. stop the mother fucking presses. Not everyone wants to see the campus police phone number prominently displayed on the main site? Well glory hallelujah. If only there were a simple 3 digit number that you could use in case of emergencies! Something that started with 9 and ended with 1 and had, I dunno, a 1 in the middle. No, that's silly, in an emergency most people will have time to visit exactly one website and won't have time to click on a single link, so yeah, the best option is to put it on the front page.

You've also got some dishonesty in the left-hand circle. "virtual tour" is totally something an applicant might want. Maybe not 100% of them, but some would. "Campus events" ? Why is that so bad? Does Randall really think no one wants to read about those? It certainly seems more likely than "Academic Calendar." or "parking information."

In short, there is nothing about this comic that isn't neuron-crushingly stupid and it's all in the service of an illogical, made up joke that just bored the loving crap out of me. GOOD JOB.

update: It gets better - I looked up Christopher Newport University on Wikipedia and guess what? Apparently it isn't the tech/engineering school I thought it was. It is, in fact, a liberal arts college. So the next time Randall mocks the liberal arts - which includes a lot of math, keep in mind - think about the fact that he went to a liberal arts school.
Assorted and sundry other thoughts:
--I've finally, FINALLY, gotten around to reading Dr. McNinja. I really enjoy it! I just finished the second part of Dare To Resist Ninja Drugs and Ninja Violence. I don't tend to read comics that have long story arcs, because they tend to be boring (not their fault, it's really hard to tell a long story that has a lot of regular laugh points throughout the whole thing) but Dr. McNinja stays funny and entertaining. I hope it stays this good.

--That said, I don't like the Dr. McNinja / Axe Cop crossover that's going on now. The joy of Axe Cop is that it's all told through the crazy imagination of an actual six year old. Giving him characters made by adults doesn't work, and just feels super gimmicky (which it is). I can see why people would compare the two comics, because they do have a lot in common, and I can see why someone would even think of doing a crossover like this. But that doesn't mean it is a good idea.

--Penny Arcade TV finally reached the point of running out of new topics and doing an episode of the show about the show itself. Quite frankly, I'm impressed the made it as long as they did without resorting to that. And it's understandable that they'd do it; as Robert Khoo mentions, you just plain run out of things to make episodes about if you want them to be interesting and new. So I guess that means it's a good time for the first season to wrap up, and I'm intrigued by the idea of new folks coming on to make the next season. But that said, I think the Two Player Productions people did an absolutely fantastic job with this series and I really enjoyed watching it. I hope the next crew is as good.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Comic 772: Accidents Happen

frogger went a courtin' or something
[alt: I understand you and your team worked hard on this, but when we said to make it more realistic, we meant the graphics.]

I was all prepared for this to be another boring xkcd sucks post. I was going to talk about how it was another in a series of comics that said "what if this video game...was more REALISTIC?" Like 161 or especially 724, or 637. And I would have mentioned that the joke would have been better if he had introduced it first as trying to make Frogger more realistic and then made the punchline what it as, as opposed to awkwardly fitting that in as the alt-text. Also I would have mused that seeing the game from the truck's point of view, with a giant frog jumping in front of your truck, might have been amusing. And I certainly would have linked to the best Frogger joke I have ever seen, a Seinfeld clip with George trying to move his Frogger console across a busy street.

That was the plan, at least, until about 3 seconds after midnight when people started to e-mail me and leave comments about this Robot Chicken clip:

[update: apparently this clip only plays in the US. here it is on youtube.]

I know I've said this before, but this time I'm really serious - can a true defender of xkcd PLEASE try to tell me how these jokes are different? I'm truly interested in this. To me it seems like: Frog crosses the street like in regular frogger game. Cars swerve to avoid him. Cars crash. I'm serious, if you think you have a reason they are different and think I've missed your comment, send me an e-mail. I want to hear this.

Now, this is not the first time there's been a problem like this. You can read the whole list of copied jokes, but the point is: He does this fairly often. When he does, I usually think about 3 basic categories that the incidents have: 1, how similar the jokes are to each other, 2, how prominent the other joke is (ie, how likely is it that people will have seen the other one), and 3, how recent was the other joke. I think this case is just about as bad as you can get on 1 and 2, though not so much on 3. How much more pathetic can you get than copying a joke off of Robot Chicken?

Now granted, I don't think Randall did this on purpose. I don't know if he watched the show or if this idea is just so obvious that he thought of the exact same thing. As I say in all these cases, if he claims that he thought of it on his own, I'll believe him. I have no evidence that he saw that episode of Robot Chicken. But what he absolutely cannot do is ignore the situation. All I ask for is a simple blog post - "Turns out a comic I drew was basically the same joke as a Robot Chicken sketch. That's crazy! I had no idea when I made the comic that they had done it." Just an acknowledgement that these two things are too close to call. But he never, never, never has. Why not? It just makes it look like he's trying to deny the problem for some reason. I wonder - can any of the folks who read this blog who hang out on the IRC chat ask him about this? I'm curious what he'd say.

Whenever a situation like this comes up, xkcd defenders almost always say the same thing: "You can't expect him to come up with new stuff every time. There's nothing new under the sun." These people apparently believe that if something is an aphorism it is always true. Well, as you can tell, those people are fucktarded. There's plenty of places you see good, original humor on a regular basis. Read "The Areas of My Expertise" by John Hodgman, or watch Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job. Or lots of other examples - it's completely possible to be original and very funny. Of course, it takes some goddamned effort which is why I guess we never see it happen in xkcd.

It's also true that it might not be possible for Randall Munroe to come up with something new every time he makes a comic. But that doesn't excuse shitty comics! It means he should get out of the fucking webcomic business. Yeah, most people can't come up with good clever humor. But those are the people who aren't trying to make a living off their good, clever humor! If xkcd isn't going to be good, it shouldn't exist at all. And just because it was good for a while in 2007 doesn't mean it is always going to be good now. Why the fuck don't people understand this?

I think it's interesting to compare this version of the joke with the Robot Chicken version. The Robot Chicken one is better, despite their huge similarity. Why? Because it has a point. XKCD is just "what if the cars swerved? ha!" and then that's the end. But the R. C. joke ends with all the frogs crossing together, and you see that it was all a scheme to help more frogs get across the screen. In other words, it has a point. And in any case, as with everything on that show, once it's done you immediately zoom off to another sketch. Robot Chicken does not have time for your shenanigans. It's got two dozen more jokes to tell. So if this joke is simple, ok, but you know it's because they had to write (and animate! and edit!) 30 10 ridiculously densely packed minutes of TV every week. Whereas when Randall does the joke...that's it. No other jokes, no other work, nothing else but this in the spotlight, nothing else for two days.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Comic 771: History Repeats Itself

Period blah bluh whatevr
[Alt: The same people who spend their weekends at the Blogger Reenactment Festivals will whine about the anachronisms in historical movies, but no one else will care.]

In the future, people will not have a good sense of how history happened:


OK, I've let my copy and pasted comics speak for themselves for a day, I suppose I should write a few words.

There are two basic facts about this current comic that bother me. The obvious one, which the other comics here are meant to illustrate, is that this idea is dumb and old. I find it incredibly similar to the PBF quoted above - particularly because the scene is presented as future-theatrical representation of life happening in our era. Both present things from all different parts of history as though they happened at once. Of course, it's telling that PBF was able to do so without explanation, while xkcd needed a caption to explain what the hell what going on. But that's a separate matter.

And of course, the whole "blogger reenactment fair" thing is a straight out repeat of the other xkcd above. The whole concept of people in the future misunderstanding what is now the present is copied exactly as well.

The other problem is that the comic is simply not true. The comic is not really about the future, of course, it's about the present, and saying that this made up thing in the future seems silly but the humor of the comic is supposed to come from the fact that we are doing the same thing today (after all, a comic that just said "a few centuries from now, politicians will wear funny hats while covering themselves in honey and eating rocks" is just random, and not funny. you can make up anything about the future!). So is it true? Does all language older than say, 100 years, sound the same to us? I'm not sure. I don't know a lot about language. Someone who does, though, is commenter A, who wrote the following comment below (hope you are ok with me posting this A!)

But the English people used in say, the 1700s sounds completely different to the English used in the 1800s. Comparing even the early and late 1800s you can see the difference, it's like, the difference between an Austen novel and Dracula.

Then again, I'm just an English literature student, and that's no hard science so what do I know.
This point is great. Yes, English from the 18th century and English from the 16th century might sound similar to someone like Randall Munroe, who has never studied it (or, for that matter, me). To someone who has, 16th century language and 18th century language are as different at 18th century and 20th century.

To put it in terms xkcd might understand, show the average dude a calculus proof and a physics proof and they'll look the same. Here, try it yourself: i got this one googling "calculus proof" and this one for "physics proof" and see if you can tell the difference. Here's something wikipedia tells me is calculus, and something wikipedia tells me is physics. For the record, I can't tell the difference at all, which means that I may be wrong and these are both the same thing. So who knows. The point is: If you don't know what you are looking at, it's not going to be meaningful.
(update: The original links I posted were, in fact, not very good examples, as pointed out by a commenter. hopefully the new ones are better.)

Which would all be well and good if Randall Munroe didn't have a history of mocking the non-math based disciplines. Come on! You can't on the one hand dismiss these fields as dumb and not worthwhile, and on the other hand laugh about how little anyone understands the differences in language over time. Maybe those fields of study aren't so stupid, huh?

No, he won't admit that. He'll keep having it both ways, and the people who hate English or Literature will keep siding with him and thinking it's hilarious and the people who think that hey, maybe things you don't like are still worth studying by some people. You don't have tpo even study them yourself! You just have to stop denigrating the people who choose to study what they love. Is that so hard? It really shouldn't be. And yet, somehow, it is. I hate it.

Comic 770: So Much Love

whats great is that i actually had to go and check the veracity of my alt text because i wasn't even sure it was true
[Alt: You know that I'll never leave you. Not as long as she's with someone.]

In some ways, I'd like to think that this blog, and the greater world of xkcd-related-anger that it tries to tap into, is self-sustaining at this point. What I mean is that there's a big part of me that thinks that I shouldn't even have to write a blog post at all: not only is the horribleness of this comic self-evident, but the entire pattern of creepy, unfunny "romance" related comics that this is a part of is self-evident as well. But that would hardly be sporting of me.

I'll start with one big thing that this comic is not: Some people seem to think that this comic is in some way about pedophilia. Probably all these people are trolls, but i am not a human by birth so I can't quite tell if these people are being serious or not. Of course, the only piece of "evidence" these claims have is that the girl is shorter than the guy. That's true, but it hardly proves the point that she's much younger. Guys are generally taller than girls. It may not be true in xkcd world, but whatever, xkcd hardly has internal consistency. XKCD has plenty of flaws that are real, so guys, let's stick with those.

For one thing, it's a near identical copy of comic 44. Now that comic was a long time ago, and Randall doesn't have a search bar on his site anymore, so maybe he just forgot. But both are three-panels of a guy and girl (look who is taller! it is still the guy!) starting off by saying that one loves the other, and then revealing that actually, eh, not so much. Of course, broaden your topic to any comic where characters are in a failing relationship and you've got a whole pillar of the xkcd universe. Does this comic add anything meaningful to that corpus? Not a bit.

Is it funny? No, not really. There's a little bit of subverted expectations, but they are lost in the fact that basically you are seeing a man tell a woman that he doesn't like her very much, or at least, not as much as one might expect in the situation. Why would he say that? There doesn't seem to be a non-convoluted reason for it. It's more about just figuring out a way to start a sentence in a way that sounds nice, and end it so that it is mean. It's of a level of complexity with "you're pretty funny...PRETTY FUNNY LOOKING!" which I did once think was quite clever but then I graduated from 7th grade. More intriguing and complex are garden path sentences, but coming up with something like is no doubt too much work for a busy cartoonist.

And then of course, the alt-text just repeats the exact same joke: I love you! But not as much as I love some other people. HA HA.

not sure why i am not feeling more rage tonight, i think it's just that I've seen this so many times, there's little new to say. but just so there is no confusion: This is truly an atrocious strip, on its own, and in the context of other similar horrible xkcd "boo hoo not everyone loves me as much as I want them to" comics.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Comic 769: All Is Fair...

what did menachim begin say to egypt's president Sadat at the friendly Oslo peace accords?  All is fair in love, Anwar

[alt: They offered to make me a green beret, but I liked my regular one. Although it gets kind of squashed under my helmet.]

This comic brings to mind many interesting, important questions. The first one is "what the fuck?"

For one thing, when is this comic taking place? I don't know much about wars and stuff but the guys helmet looks like how World War Two soldiers look, his rifle looks like something from the American Revolution, and his love/enemy's name "Cordelia" plus vocabulary like "i hope this missive finds you well" suggests something from the Civil War. The "maintenance shed" suggests a first person shooter. The stone wall I can't quite figure out, but it doesn't seem right with any of those (except the fps).

Second, what's he writing on? I know it may seem like a trivial question, but it matters. Is he writing a letter with ink on paper? In that case, why is he writing whatever comes out of his mind? In other words, if he were actually writing a letter to the woman he is trying to shoot, he wouldn't say "I fear you may have found a superior vantage poi--A splendid effort, my love..." because that doesn't make sense. The first half of the letter is negated by the second. So a normal sane human would just start over and not act like this was a conversation. How is the reader supposed to know what effort the writer is talking about? She's not reading it in real time. So that makes no fucking sense.

What if he's IMing her or something? It's hard to tell what he's writing on, though it looks like he's holding a pen. Nonetheless, it may be a stylus of some kind so let's think about this. When you write an IM to your friend Cordelia, do you start it with, "My Dearest Cordelia" ? No. you start it with "yo cord whuts up." THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT. Also, if the message is being sent digitally and instantly, it takes away the point of the last line - the mild amusement that the line induces comes from the image of him throwing a love letter tied to a grenade, ie, the two are actually thrown together and found at the same time. So that makes no fucking sense either.

Lastly, who the hell are these people? The alt-text tells us that the man on screen is our beloved Mr. Beret, a "character" who despite numerous appearances has only three consistent traits: 1, he is totally unpredictable based on previous actions, 2, he wears a beret (but not always, like here), 3, he makes xkcd forumites squeal with glee about something they call "existentialism" but which bears little to resemblance to actual existentialism. It's quite a mystery. I'd go so far as to say that it makes no fucking sense.

So who is he? Does he love someone named Cordelia and just so happens to be at war with her? Does he hate her, so he is mocking her? Does he not know her at all? Or is he just insane? Who knows! If these characters had any sort of consistency, if we were given any context for their actions, it might be funny. But we're not. We will no doubt never hear of this again (i would love to be wrong on this). So we can't help but be confused.

Oh context. Done properly, this could have been a pointed commentary on the tragedy of war, the innocence of soldiers, the current debate over Don't Ask Don't Tell (and the broader role of love in the military), a metaphor for a troubled many possibilities, none of them even attempted.

I'll end on a nice note: the use of color is done well here. Adds to the visual effect (makes it easier to imagine this scene as a real soldier) without being distracting or annoying. I'd love to see this happen more.

Wait, no, I'll end on an unhappy note: lots of people pointed this out but I still should say, this joke was much better the first time.

update: Some people have been yellin' at me in the comments on a few topics that I think are worth clarifying.

The first is, why does it matter when this is supposed to take place? I think it matters because the confused signals (19th century name, 20th century dress, etc) show that Randall hasn't really thought through what is going on in this comic. He hasn't pinned down the context. I think the other problems flow from that one: he didn't build this idea on a solid foundation, and the confusion about time is a part of that.

The second is about how he is writing to her. When I wrote that he was either IMing or sending a letter, I was, of course, being too limited. What I meant was that he is either writing to her in a format where he writes the entire message, sends it, and then she gets it all at once and reads it (e-mail, regular mail) or he is writing to her in a more conversational style, where he writes to her, she "communicates" back (not with words, but with bullets) and he then talks about the new thing she's "said" ("shot"). In any case, neither really makes sense.

Lastly, some people pointed out a much better joke that this could have been, and maybe it's even the joke he was trying to make. Basically, the better comic would have the image of a soldier writing a letter, and it would talk about how much he misses his darling Cordelia etc, etc, he just wants to see her again, etc, the usual stuff you'd expect. Then, as the comic progresses, you realize (perhaps the bullets give it away, perhaps this version would do something else) that he is writing about his enemy. That would be a reversal from what you are expecting in the first half. It might even be funny, maybe. As it is though, the comic starts with him saying that he's writing to his enemy ("through my telescopic sights") before the shooting starts, so it really makes no sense at all.

OK, i really should get started on the rage for comic 770 now...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Comic 768: Progress

1996 was the craziest year. DO YOU GUYS REMEMBER 1996? how CRAZY it was?
[Alt: College Board issues aside, I have fond memories of TI-BASIC, writing in it a 3D graphing engine and a stock market analyzer. With enough patience, I could make anything ... but friends. (Although with my chatterbot experiments, I certainly tried.)]

FINALLY, a comic that is not horrifically crappy to break the chain of comics that are horrifically crappy. Heck, he even went all out and gave us FOUR panels! that's the first time in two weeks!

It's true: This comic contains, deep within it, a funny joke. TI graphing calculators are basically the same product, for the same price, that they have been for years. Lots of other stuff has either dropped in price or gotten better, and the ol' TI is doing its thing. There may be good reasons for it, that I don't doubt. And I suppose that inflation means that the "same" price is really a lower real price. But it still is funny when you first think about it, like TI is this pathetic thing that just hobbles along while every other company is leaping into the future.

That said, there are better ways to have done this. For one thing, there's an awful lot of text in the first two panels, and it's a little hard to read. I understand it's necessary, to show all the different specs that have changed. That's why the suggestion is simple: Make the panels bigger. Same text, larger font. problem solved.

And that last panel is not important at all. The joke is clear from the end of the third panel (to anyone who is ever going to get the joke at all, that is) and the last panels just hurts it. But the girl's line is moderately funny, so my solution here is also simple: make her joke the alt-text and scrap the stupid alt-text you gave us. (you may want to append a "zing!" to the end to show that you are just poking fun at a beloved childhood device)

Oh, what I would give to have Randall let me edit his comics...alas.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Comic 767: Getting Angry

rip mr. rogers, you will always be in the neighborhood of my heart
[Alt: Mr. Rogers projected an air of genuine, unwavering, almost saintly pure-hearted decency. But when you look deeper, at the person behind the image ... that's exactly what you find there, too. He's exactly what he appears to be.]

Given that some people - including me - didn't even realize that this comic is meant to be making fun of the recent news of Mel Gibson's rather horrible fights with his own wife-like-friend, I think this is a comic that will not age well. Like a few other comics he's made (making fun of the Obama inauguration, the death of Gary Gygax, etc) this one offers no real context on its own (heck, even the date is not easy to find), so a reader in the future will not have any way of knowing what this is making fun of.

So let's look at this the way a viewer in the future might: He sees a comic devoid of art, just text, that shows Mr. Rogers arguing very politely with his wife. Actually, scratch that - it refers to "Fred Rogers," which a viewer will have to realize was Mr. Rogers' first name. I didn't know that, at least not off the top of my head. I mean, I figured it out, but not everyone is as brilliant as me.

Anyway, the joke is powerfully lame. The joke is saying this: "Mr. Rogers is so nice..." "HOW NICE IS HE??" "He is so nice...that even when he argues with his wife he does it in a nice manner!" Really. That's all there is. And then when you read the alt-text, there it is again!

Yes, it's meant to contrast with the Mel Gibson tape, but a) that only works for those people familiar with the tape, and b) it's a stupid contrast. Of course Mr. Rogers is different from Mr. Gibson! Mr. Rogers is a lovely children's television host, and Mr. Gibson is a crazy psycho racist. That's true no matter what.

The amusing contrast would be to compare one of these men's public persona to a fictional, contrasting one. So you'd have either Mel Gibson secretly being really friendly (unlikely, because we all know it's not true) or the secret dark side to Mr. Rogers. That last one is a funny idea, all the more so because it violently clashes with the image we all want to have of him. Of course, it's also the subject of several well known urban legends, so it wouldn't be very original.

In short: A lazy current events comic that says nothing new about its subject. xkcd has been having a very bad few weeks.

update: I totally forgot! It's the latest in a long string of comics for children!


You'll also see that there is a link to the store at the top of the site. There's no new product that he's advertising, so one might suspect that he just wants to counteract falling sales. No matter. The point is that I went back to the store to check it out, and found, for the second time, a Breadpig product that annoys me. This is a good time to say that this has nothing to do with xkcd; breadpig is run by Alexis Ohanian, a very friendly and thoughtful dude who sent me my review copy of the xkcd book and also took some time to have a very long conversation with me when I objected to another breadpig product. (that was the spiderpig shirt, still for sale, which i object to because it is a joke that the Simpsons made and breadpig is jumping on to make their own product).

ANYWAY the point is, they are selling this Animal Farm poster and related t-shirt. And I know it's going to seem strange to ask for self-censorship in the context of a George Orwell book, but I think it's bad form to take a popular book, still under copyright, and excerpt parts of it for a product you sell. I know it's just a short quote, but it's an iconic one, and I can't help but feel that if I were to write a book and someone who liked it made something like this, I would be annoyed. The author of the work, or whoever controls his estate, should be the one who benefits from the effort put into writing it and coming up with classic lines like "some animals are more equal than others."

I don't know. It's not as clear cut at the spiderpig case, but I still think it's a bad trend. an ORWELLIAN one, at that.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Comic 766: Green With Jealousy

don't stare at this comic
[alt: The exact cause of the phenomenon is unknown, but it's thought to be linked to atmospheric refraction and you getting a really cool car.]

Let's start with the obvious. This xkcd doesn't quite look like most others. Can you figure out how? Here, I'll give you another comic to compare it to:

dur de durrrr
Yes, definitely something odd going on here.

Now, I've read the comments about this comic on my previous thread, and there's been a huge debate over whether this comic constitutes good art or not. And I think people on both sides of the argument have made it clear that they will kill me if I do not agree with their side. So, knowing that by wading into this debate, I open myself up to certain death, I have to say that I do like it.

It's not a timeless classic, of course, and some people who seem more knowledgeable about computer art than I say it isn't even that difficult. No matter. I still like it, and not just because it's better by far than the usual standard. It may not be realistic to have the ocean be totally dark right next to the sun, but whatever. When I ask for better art in xkcd I don't mean photorealistic art, I just mean art that helps the comedy, which this does (to an extent). Here, look at the big version.

Leaving the quality of joke aside for now, the point is that one character is trying to use the sunset to distract another. If we just had a crappy black ink on white page version of this comic - which I would sketch out if I had more time but I am sure you can imagine it in your mind - it wouldn't be as effective. Seeing some that much more closely approximates a real sunset makes your mind start to think about times that you have looked at sunsets, it makes it easier to imagine a person staring at this while a man in a hat steals his car. In other words, (and i haven't expected to say this before) the art does help support the story of the comic.

Of course, the story is lame. The story is "look at the sun while I steal your car," with a car that happens to be popular to nerds these days thrown in. That's it! It makes for quite the contrast with the art, though not in a nice way. Besides, Mr. Hat is supposed to be diabolical, not so stupid that he tells the dude exactly what he is scheming. Look at it! He's actually saying "stare at the sun for a while as I drive away in your car." Come on! I'd be happier with the no dialog version, as linked to above. Maybe some weapon clearly visible in Mr. Hat's hand, or something.

In the end, it's a rare step towards art and words that compliment each other in xkcd. I'd be setting myself up for disappointment if I expect more of this, but at least he isn't denigrating an entire field of study or showing people carefully plotting pregnancies.

DAYS THE XKCD "ANTHROPOLOGIZE" MESSAGE LASTED ON XKCD: 2 (it's not even up on the original comic anymore! sucks to be an anthro major who reads the comic later!)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Comic 765: Homeopathetic

[alt text: "Dear editors of Homeopathy Monthly: I have two small corrections for your July issue. One, it's spelled "echinacea", and two, homeopathic medicines are no better than placebos and your entire magazine is a sham."]

Well! Now that the shit storm from last week has mostly died down, and Randall has added a whole new apology where the tag line of his blog used to be. Even though most of us assumed that adding "zing!" to his insult was enough to make it ok, the new notice is there so that we don't take Randall comment the wrong way. When he said "Anthropology is not a real science, and it's really easy, and so you get plenty of free time, and if you are working hard at anthropology it's probably because you are very stupid," he just meant it as "a friendly jibe at a cool field." Well that settles that!

Although I also want to point out that he clearly calls the text that pops up when you hover over a comic to be its "alt-text." Can people please stop giving me a hard time about this now? Even Randall and I agree on this!

Now i've gotten all distracted and forgotten what this comic was about. Let me just have a l-

I guess I should start by pointing out that despite what some people are saying, the "jab" at homeopathy in this comic is completely different from the "jab" at anthropology in the last comic, for a simple reason: Anthropology, unlike homeopathy, is not bullshit. Calling anthro not real science is just being a prick. Mocking homeopathy, on the other hand, is fine, because being a pseudoscience it is in fact the definition of something pretending to be a science that is completely not. So on that count, at least, Randall certainly gets a pass.

That said, making fun of pseudoscience is like shooting very stupid fish in a barrel (fish who are wearing amethyst bracelets to protect themselves from bullets). As far as I know, homeopathy isn't in the news right now, and is as stupid now as it was a decade ago (or inevitably will be a decade from now). As a target for mockery, it strikes me as too easy. For example. (understand that i am linking to that video not to complain about it, but to use it as an example of this being done before, being done easily, and being done better)

But of course, that's not what anyone will remember from this comic. They'll remember the part where the dude makes a diluted semen mixture in an attempt to impregnate the girl. Maybe you read webcomics to see stick figures play with their ejaculate; that would just be another way that you and I are different. So I found that the gross out factor of this comic - in the context, of course, of the dozens of other far-too-much-information xkcds - just a little distressing.

Then there's the caption. Now I don't really care whether homeopathy's point is that you dilute things a lot but the water into which you've diluted them ends up more potent than the original substance, or if homeopathy says that by ingesting an absurdly small, possibly nonexistent amount of a bad substance, you immunize yourself to anything else which could possibly give you the same symptoms as the toxin. (like I said, it is just stupid as hell). Clearly, one makes this comic make sense and one makes the comic make no sense. But the logic of this comic still is pretty dumb: How would belief in homeopathy be genetic? That is silly. No "beliefs" are genetic. They can be passed down from parent to child, but not genetically. I mean, I guess it's to be expected that a webcomic author wouldn't know an actual science like biology. zing!

This is another comic where an aspect of pregnancy particularly burdensome on the woman - in this case, actually being pregnant - is portrayed as being shared equally. The text is "we'll be sure to get pregnant now" as opposed to the more, say, accurate "I'll be sure to get pregnant now" or even "we'll be sure to get me pregnant now." There are other examples - when a woman who has just given birth says something like "sweet! we made a baby!" and maybe some more. I'd love to link you to them but HEY, the search function on the homepage just disappeared! DAMN. That's ok, i guess, it was pretty bad at doing its job. Maybe he'll bring it back soon with a better database of his comics?

OK guys, almost done with this one. Let's get to the alt-text, conveniently reproduced below the comic above. I actually really liked the alt-text. I liked that he found a homeopathy magazine, pointed out that it made an elementary mistake, used that to question its basic grasp of science, and then just came out and completely insulted the whole premise of the magazine. It was well done, I thought. Lucky he found a typo in the July issue of Homeopathy Monthly magazine, I thought! Then people pointed out that Homeopathy Monthly is a sham, not in the sense of "it spreads dangerous lies to people" but in the sense of "it doesn't exist and Randall made it up."

I think that is the definition of a Straw Man, no? (not counting the definition "a man made from straw.") He sets up a fake magazine to act as the proxy for the homeopathy industry, claims it made a dumb typo, uses this to show that the magazine is dumb, and uses that to show that the industry is dumb. But the whole mistake wasn't real! he made it up! So what is the point?

Guys, can you believe the stupid thing Politician X said about the gulf oil spill? He said that the birds covered in oil should be happy about it, because they can sell the oil for lots of money! That's so stupid. I should use the same logic and spill oil all over Politician X's car, house, family, and legislative district. I'll tell him it's a campaign donation!
This might be funny if a person had actually made that claim about birds in the gulf of mexico (well, maybe not funny, but i didn't try very hard). But since I made up the quote, who cares?

And lastly, the baster that the man is holding, the one which will be inserted into the woman, appears to be the same length as the distance from the woman's knee to her foot, and wider than her leg. Discuss.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Comic 764: An Anthropological Study of Nerds

Because this one's exploding, we'll give it its own post, ROB-STYLE. FUCK YEAH WOOOOO

fuck you randy

[ALT TEXT: "Cue letters from anthropology majors complaining that this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth. They get to write letters like that because when you're not getting a real science degree you have a lot of free time." After presumably receiving a lot of angry letters about his alt-text, he added a 'Zing!' at the end. -Ed.]

Let's all pause and take a moment to reflect on the fact that this comic's alt text has (so far!) provoked probably the most agreement this blog has ever seen regarding a comic/alt text. (Even 631, which brought out the "haha you are afraid of vaginas because you are either gay or 12 or both, whereas I, because I am straight and male and heterosexual and masculine, love all portrayals of vaginas, ever, because I am straight and male and never overcompensate for anything" trolls in force.)

Wasn't that fun?

Part of the reason it bothers me is that even if you assume that he's not bashing fine arts people (which isn't the worst assumption you could possibly make, since he doesn't ever really mention them)--people who are, with few exceptions, far busier than science people and therefore obviously vastly superior--he's still ignoring the fact that most social science people spend just as much time with reading, studying, research, lab work, etc. as hard science types. I could see an argument for non-social science types (English majors) having slightly less to do, on account of not having a lab. but they are still quite frequently very busy.

It's amusing that he is attacking people who are pedantic about their field. This is Randall "The Southern Half Of The Globe" Munroe. Randall "I Nitpick Over Electron-Labeling Conventions" Munroe. Randall "I Intentionally Bastardize The Wording Of Common Puzzles And Then Attack That Wording For Being Difficult To Understand" Munroe.

He is the KING of the fucking pedants, is what I'm saying. He, and his fans, are much more likely to email someone who gets a petty fact "wrong" than most other demographics--certainly much more so than the one he's attacking. And he doesn't limit himself to science facts, either. He's a pedant about everything, and, as pedants usually are, he's wrong about it just about every time.

An anthropology major or someone in a related field might email him about this one, it's true. But they're probably not going to email him about a completely unrelated field. Compare to, for instance, Randy himself. If he had not written this comic, but instead stumbled upon it, having read the Wiki articles he used to make it, he would probably have emailed the writer, saying that this view of neurolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth.

Randy is a physicist. His entire background in the humanities consists of "reading articles about it on Wikipedia and subsequently disparaging the experts in those fields who made the Wikipedia article he just read possible." And yet he disparages them on his comic even more frequently than I devour a thousand cheeseburgers in one terrible gulp with my horrible gaping maw.

Which is to say, a lot. (Because I am fat.)

Even the forums are coming down pretty hard on this one. Bets on how long until Randy either mysteriously changes the alt text or issues some sappy apology?

also fuck you carl

OK now it's carl writing.

FUCK YOU right back, Rob! I'm glad you wrote this though, I didn't want to admit I may not have the time for this one. I'll let this be the official post on 764 because then i have less work to do, but we can't let this go without mentioning something else:

First it was comics about basic math (3x9, in this case)
Then it was comics about learning the difference between similies and metaphors.
Now it's comics about Sesame Street.
Am I the only one noticing a powerful trend towards appealing to children?

That will be all.

Wait, no, carl again, back with updates. First off, to people reading this post in the future, read the comments. There's a huge amount of them but some really good discussions going on.

later update:
It just occurred to me: when was the last time we had an xkcd character with eyes? I think it helps a lot. Just imagine how weird it would be without them. I think he should do this more often.

another update: Rob, i can't believe you forgot where "cuddlefish" got started! it was here. As you can see, it was Amanda's idea. It is interesting that while she constantly refuses to become a regular blogger on this site, she has given us by far our most lasting meme.

also: This is linked to in the comments but I want to make sure everyone sees it.

Last update, added way after our original post insulting this comic:


Comic 763: Problem Solving

more ha, people can be so stupid when it comes to their computers! It just makes a former physicist like you or me sick, how stupid some people can be. Figuring out solutions to their problems that aren't as efficient as possible? Ludicrous! [yes, i originally wrote "there" instead of "their" in a sentence mocking stupidity. enjoy, people.]

On the one hand, this comic is less annoying than the oft-heard concept online that people need to stop bugging us nerds for to help solve their problems. On the other hand, it's saying that even if other people solve their own problems, some people/comics will still make fun of them for it. So, non-xkcd readers are screwed either way. Ask for help, and we'll mock you for needing help. Solve the problem on your own, and we'll mock you for doing it wrong. Solve it right, and you'll just break even: "whatver, I could have done that."

I can't tell, though, if it's the same attitude espoused in this comic or the opposite one.

It is, i know, the same mindset that pisses me off about this thinkgeek shirt. Strangely, that's the second time in recent memory that I've said something to the effect of, "Yes, this xkcd is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as this thinkgeek shirt."

<thinkgeek rant>

I like thinkgeek, I like them a lot. They sell many many wonderful things. But sometimes - usually in their product descriptions, occasionally in their products, as in the examples above, they veer too hard into the "fake nerd" category, the marketing category that gives us gems like "let's make a pie tin in the shape of pi! because, you know, NERDS!" or maybe "if we take this unsellable product and either put an image from Portal on it or infuse it with the smell of bacon, everyone will want it! because, you know, nerds!" It pisses me off. It's not really their fault; they are trying to sell things and if they can get their customers to feel like not just thinkgeek customers but a whole seperate social group then I am sure that helps their business. So I guess the people I am really disappointed in are the fake nerds.

Has anyone run accross anyone else writing about this sort of thing, what I've taken to calling faux-nerdery? Surely there has been something.

[for what it's worth, a long-term xkcd trend has been to stop appealing to actual nerds and just appeal to faux-nerds. I actually think loving xkcd may be a central tenet of faux-nerd culture]

</thinkgeek rant>

lastly, is there a reason the alt-text says "six partitions, labelled c: through j:" ? Is that not 8 drives? I know my computer has C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J. Or is the implication that he misnamed them?

So this turned into far less of a post on xkcd and more of a general one. Oh well, if that is the way my muse inspires me.


Guys! It's been almost 2 months since the xkcd blog updated! I wonder what's been happening.

Has Daisy Owl just given up, or am I missing something? There hasn't been an update in weeks, and the author finally took down that "guys I am back so I'll be making comics again" notice. Does anyone know what the deal is?

Lastly, i cannot wait for the Overcompensating book! That is all. I just want you all to know I am excited.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Comic 762: Sudo Make Me an Analogy

poopology is the study of poop, now you know
File this one under "conversations that might be funny in real life, but not staged as in a comic." The people are being clever - overly clever, in fact, with layers and layers of meanings piled on top of each other. It's possible that some people are clever enough to come up with lines like this in real life, in real time, but it's hard to believe, and when I see it in the comic, it just seems staged. It's not realistic.

The tricky thing is, as clever as this conversation is - and it is, especially the final line - even if it happened in real life exactly as we see it in the comic, it'll never be funny as a comic. Because readers (critical ones, that is) will see it and think "that's all well and good for characters, but they aren't acting like real people, they're acting like scripted characters." It's the reason I hate most of the alleged comedy in Shakespeare: It's all so layered and complicated that I stop hearing characters and just hear a writer, trying too hard.

And another thing: Is it just me, or is this another comic in quick succession that deals with distinctly pre-middle school academic material? Last time was basic multiplication tables, this time it's similes and metaphors, a distinction I vaguely recall a seventh grade teacher attempting to teach me.

How can you even be "bad at metaphors," the way the woman in panel 2 claims? How does that make sense?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Comic 761: In Too Deep

here lies the SHOCKING TRUTH
This is one of those comics with a lot of little problems but nothing big. Whether the little ones add up enough to seriously piss you off is, of course, up to you. You can imagine my own feelings. I guess the only logical and appropriate way to explain is to just list the problems:

--One, terrible use of space. Just terrible. The huge amount of white space makes the comic extremely off balance and irritating to read. Panel 5 could easily have come at the end of a row. Yes, it's true that more time has passed between panel 4 and 5 than between any other panels, but that's not really a problem. If you are going to separate the last one out like that - and you can, that's fine - you need to figure out a nicer way to do it. At the very very least, center it. Probably you should make it a bit wider too, and perhaps taller to match. You could also have the first two panels on one row, the 3rd and 4th below that, and the final panel below that.

A smaller width for this comic would have the additional advantage of letting the caption - which refers, of course, to the entire comic's action - take up the width of the whole comic.

--the towel on the stick figure looks really, really weird. I assume it is a towel, actually, I should probably point out that they also might be pants.

--Here, I'll switch to saying something nice. People have pointed out that it appears the cut-off #4 on the first panel's list says "bee eating contest." I find this line quite funny. I think if I had been editing this comic I would have said to make Bee Eating Contest the first problem, and get into the funny sorts of situations that would bring up. Snake bite is irrelevant enough to be weird but not inherently funny enough to make for a good comic.

--It's another lame "what if a human mind was operated like a computer could be?" scenario. And the answer is: "it would lead to hilarious consequences, all of which would be hilarious!"

--dialog in the last panel. Both of them. There's no shock in the woman's voice - her question a about his preparedness isn't even until her second sentence - and her first sentence ("I'm here to pick you up") is one that in real life would be so obvious as to not need stating. Even "Wait - why aren't you dressed for our date?" would make more sense.

As to his dialog, "By LD 50" is needless nerdery. Toss it.

--Lastly, the art details. First, check out the classic example of xkcd floaty-head syndrome in panel 2 (did we ever come up with a name for this symptom? I have forgotten). But more importantly, notice that the hair changes between panels 3 and 4. Given the towel, the fact that he's preparing for a date, and the general mess that his hair is in, I assumed, as did many people, that the hair simply had been wet, perhaps in some kind of a shower, and then dried as the time went on. That's fine: Standard, presumably dry, xkcd hair is just to have nothing. By switching to that, the comic was, I assume, trying to show that time had passed. Good! That's a clever way to do so, without calling attention to it too much. I was almost shocked, actually, given how badly Randall usually does the telling and not the showing (see, for example, panel 5 of this very comic).

And then, as you probably know, something changed. Namely, the comic changed. Randall went and made some edits and reposted the "fixed" comic, never, as far as I know, admitting he has made a mistake (this has happened a few times with typos and such, usually updated on the sly and never admitting that things were any other way). Luckily, our own Ann Apolis saved a copy of the original that you can see above. The new one is, of course, on the xkcd site linked to through the image above.

Obviously, having to go back and update any comic is not a good sign - it's a sign of hasty work, not checked before it was published. But in this case, I think there's an even weirder problem, which is that the comic was better before.

Think about it - there are, in the revised comic, two options:
--Lots of time passed, and his hair is just always like that
(this is odd because almost no male characters in xkcd have ever had hair, and when they did, it was for a specific and clear reason, usually to identify them as unique)
--No time passed, and his hair is still wet
(this is odd, because the humor of the comic is supposed to come from the fact that he has wasted a lot of time on doing the wrong sort of research)

See, when I say things like "there are things about xkcd that are objectively wrong," this is what I mean. The way he's constructed his comic has clear and identifiable problems. It's not like it's impossible for him to do it right - after all, he did it right first, before he changed it. Yes, some people were confused by "what happened to his hair??" but those people should have thought harder.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Comic 760: When You're In A Hole, Stop Digging

ain't nothing a nerd likes more than Lord of the Rings. And sure, there have been parodies of it before, and sure, people have poked fun at it before, especially when the movies came out and were good in some ways but very silly in others. But - in all those jokes (maybe you even made some of your own!) - has anyone ever wondered what if the dwarves in moria had gotten stuck in a deep hole? Think about it.

With 1000+ pages of LotR, I have a hard time believing this is the best joke Randall could have made. Or even an above average one. If you disagree, can I remind you: the joke is they were stuck in a hole. Because you know, if you are stuck in a hole with all your hole digging equipment, and the whole place is made of stone, why can't you carve some stairs in the walls of your hole? Like, carve hand and foot holds and climb out?

But I digress. What I was trying to say was, this doesn't strike me as the end result of "what's a funny joke about lord of the rings?" so much as the end result of "I'm going to turn to a random page in lord of the rings and try to make the best joke I can out of whatever I find there." And who knows, maybe this is the best joke that can be made out of the Dwarves unleashing the Balrog or whatever (maybe not, but let's pretend). In that case, the solution isn't to say "hey, this is the best I can do with this incredibly specific topic, sweet, let's post it" but to say "Well if this is the best I am going to get out of this particular lotr passage, I should really try a few more passages and see if they lead to anything better."

It feels, to take a new tack, like a Mystery Science theater 3000 joke. Read the first three panels in your best Ian McKellen voice, then switch to your best Tom Servo voice and add "So deep they were stuck in the hole, forever. The end, kids!" Mike (mike rules!) and Crow laugh quickly and the movie moves on, and you forget the mediocre joke because while watching it you also hear 400 other jokes making fun of it. This one doesn't stand out, but it's better than nothing, the only other choice the mst3k people have. Randall has more choice: if a joke isn't great, just keep writing until one is better. And if you can't think of any good jokes, get out of the webcomic business.