Sunday, November 7, 2010

Special Bonus Review: Randy's Poorly Titled Story In Machine Of Death

[Weekends are so dull when there are no reviews. Fortunately your least favorite hell demon and mine "shufti" has apparently emailed me a review of Randy's short story in the Machine of Death anthology. Which, okay. I strongly recommend reading the story before the review. -Ed.]

Warning: there are spoilers in this review. I made no attempt to hide the spoilers, so if you don't have access to a hard copy I would download the (absolutely free!) .pdf for Machine of Death, which is right here. Randy's story is on page 421.

Okay that's out of the way. MOVING ON TO THE REVIEW!

++++

Here's a list of common complaints for xkcd:

  • Poor pacing

  • Poor attribution

  • Poor characterization

  • Poor dialogue

  • Poor art



Basically everything, aside from the boxes that surround the comic (which are rather well-done, actually).

Why do I bring this up? Because everything wrong with xkcd (art notwithstanding) is also wrong with Randy's story in Machine of Death. For those not in the know, Machine of Death is a short story collection framed around the concept of a machine that can predict your death based on a blood sample. The big draw is that most of these stories come from famous webcomic people - Ryan North (who also came up with the concept), David Malki !, Kris Straub, etc. (Ben Croshaw - of Zero Punctuation fame - also has a story in here). But of course, because the webcomic world is a big in-group where everyone seems to know everyone, Randall Munroe had his story end up in here too. And as I already mentioned, it's awful.

So, on to the analysis. First off, it's amusingly titled "?", which is only amusing in the context that all the story titles correspond to causes of death the machine spits out. You might think this is Randy being clever, in which case I would point out that, based on xkcd's de-evolution in the past 3-4 years, Randy has undergone extensive surgery to have all the clever purged from his body. I would also point out that Randy originally submitted the story with the title "Murder". Take from that what you will.

As the title would indicate, the story is about bucking a trend. Fair enough; several of the stories make it a point to indicate that the machine has had a sizable impact on society (in one story, its introduction in Britain led to the minimum voting age being lowered to 14 and the election of a 17-year-old Prime Minister). You can't expect everyone to be happy about it. The problem is that Randy does it in the most annoying, pretentious, faux-nerdy way possible. However, before I can get to that, I have to get past the first sentence, and Lord, does that raise its own issues. The story starts off with the line: "He had not read his slip of paper," and the first time I read this I knew that I was in for some pain.

Let me explain: I really strongly dislike when a writer misses out on opportunities to use contractions. That may seem like a small detail to a lot of you, but little things make or break stories. You mentally stumble over a phrase here, a word there, and suddenly your immersion is broken because you're trying to make sense of what the writer is saying instead of just enjoying the story. The disruption of flow can, potentially, ruin the experience, which is why, when it comes to writing, it's so important to know, at least in general, how people communicate and think. For proof, re-read that last sentence. It's fucking awful; the overuse of commas (and subordinate clauses) "stutters" the sentence in your head, making it unnecessarily hard to understand. If I had just said: "The disruption of flow can potentially ruin the experience, which why it's so important that writers know, at least in general, how people communicate and think," it would have been a much better sentence. Likewise, when Randy missed out on using that contraction, he missed out on improving the flow of his sentence. It comes down to knowing not just the rules of grammar but also how that grammar sounds and feels; this is what separates writers from non-writers, and perhaps more importantly, what separates average writers from great ones.

The rest of the story follows suit - grammatically, everything is "just fine", but it's all slightly disconnected. He doesn't use many modifiers, which is the main problem; he prefers to use a multitude of main clauses to deliver his message. The disconnected feel could work thematically, especially since the main character is supposedly mentally unhinged, but it's still annoying to read. In the end, I suppose whether or not you're fine with that depends on whether you're willing to accept this as a good paragraph:

"There was no answer. He reached the car. It was a Chevy Nova with no glass in the back window. He had bought it for $300, cash."

I, personally, am not.

"So where is he driving?" you might ask, conveniently picking out from the quoted paragraph the one question that would allow me to segue back to my first point regarding the plot. Well, very generally, he's driving from place to place setting forest fires. He's doing this because, apparently, this is what happens when you answer the "dangerous question" asked in the story's synopsis: "what happens when physical science rejects the idea of precognition?' Yep, according to Randy, the Machine of Death is "unnatural" and not "science". Some quotes:

"You can't just say what's going to happen ahead of time. That's not how physical law works. That's narrative. And when reality is twisted to fit narrative, that's not natural. That's someone making stories happen."

"Physics works by saying that if you set things up like so, this is what will happen. Curses say that no matter how you set things up, this is what will happen."

So, putting aside the fact that he's going dangerously meta with his argument, he's making two mistakes here. The first, and lesser, mistake is that he's conflating Physics with Physical Law, something that I would think someone who worked for NASA wouldn't do. Here's something off the Wikipedia page for Physical Law:

"[...]Nor should 'physical law' be confused with 'law of physics' - the term 'physical law' usually covers laws in other sciences (e.g. biology) as well."

The second problem is that no, this *is* science. In fact, at its core it is the very definition of science. The machine states a falsifiable hypothesis (you will die in X fashion) which you can test via observation (whether the person died as the machine predicted). From this we can draw a conclusion (the machine can/cannot predict death). Hopefully other people will test this hypothesis for themselves so there can be peer approval. That's the scientific method in a nutshell. Even a dummy English major like me can get that one right. Randy The narrator seems upset that the methodology is unclear but that isn't a good enough excuse because it conveniently forgets that several major theories accepted as "fact" and "science" (gravity, light acting as a wave and a particle, etc.) are still not fully understood.

"I never expected an answer[...]I was at peace with an uncaring universe. So what the hell is this all about? For the first time, a chance at some answers, and you're playing games?"

Translation: "Boo hoo, I'm forced to reconsider my views in light of new evidence. THIS ISN'T SCIENCE!"

God, this is insufferable. It's a shame that I, an unwashed plebe, am caring more about the rigor of his views on science than he is. Maybe he's doing this on purpose, but I don't think it excuses him. For better or worse he's looked to as a bit of an authority in the areas of science; when he says something in the context of science many people will take him at face value. And why not? He has a degree in physics, he's worked in the scientific field; he has experience on his side and many people will trust that experience. As such, he has an intellectual duty to be as straightforward as possible in that regard so as to not accidentally mislead his audience. I'm afraid that many people are going to walk away from this with a misshapen view of what science is all about - it's not, as he's saying, about accepting something because you know why it happens. Science is about observing something happening and then trying to find out why. If he were truly a scientist he wouldn't be whining that his outlook on life was being challenged, he would accept that the machine works, and then he would be trying to figure out how or why the machine worked, or what it means practically (incidentally, that latter statement is explored in Ryan North's vastly superior story "Murder and Suicide, Respectively". For the record, when Ryan North went for his master's degree he specialized in computational linguistics, a field Randy has openly mocked. I think we can say that Ryan North is, on the scale of Decent Human Beings, several magnitudes greater than Randy).

The more I think about and read this story, the more wrong pops out of it. There's wrong in nearly everything he does and says. For instance: the narrator is talking to someone the whole time, but he doesn't make it explicitly clear who he's talking to until midway through the story. That's bad form. It's needless obfuscation. Just make it clear he's addressing an abstract entity rather than string us along for no good reason.

Or how about this little gem:

"He pulled out onto the freeway, and settled the speedometer at seventy.[...]In any event, the car wouldn't go faster."

Well, Randy, you are not "settling" your car at seventy; you're redlining it. There's a big difference.

Then there's this nugget:

"In elementary school," he said, after a time, "kids would come up to you and ask the question, 'Are you P.T.?' It was a trick question, of course. If you said yes, they called you a pregnant teenager. If you said no, they'd say you weren't potty-trained. All you could do was reject the question. You could even," he added conversationally, "punch the kid in the mouth when he asked."

Punch him in the mouth. Violence will solve everything.

*Sigh*

Outside of the incredible achievement of managing to write legibly, there's nothing here that he does right. Absolutely nothing.

"[...]I'm done searching halfheartedly for answers. I have your attention, across whatever space and time separates us. Whatever is going to happen to me can happen here. I'm not moving to eat or drink. If that's the way you've decided it will happen, then I guess that's the way it will happen. But it's your decision, not mine.[...]But if you have even a bit of honesty in you, the paper in my pocket doesn't say 'SUICIDE.' It says 'MURDER'."

Just shut up. Just be quiet.

There are many reasons to buy Machine of Death, but Randy's story is most definitely not one of them.

[I really wanted to like this story, because I've long premised many of my posts and comments on this blog on the premise that Randy would do better if only he wasn't writing XKCD. That the format of XKCD--its lack of structure, its reliance on his shitty art to tell a story, the rut into which Randy has driven himself--was what was limiting him from achieving something that didn't suck. This story proves me wrong--it manages to be one of the most annoying short stories I've ever had the misfortune to read. And there's all these little details that make it so much worse. -Ed.]

73 comments:

  1. The part that made me stop and think "what the hell did I just read?" in Randy's story was the "he reached the car, it was a Chevy blahblahblah" part.

    He wrote it in such a weird tense just to be different I guess, but it just needlessly fuddled up the syntax of his sentences.

    Also, the story was really boring. It's like... I'm gonna show YOU, god! Or, science! Or, Machine of Death! Or whoever/whatever the hell his whole monologue was addressing.

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  2. i think randy is trying for minimalist writing and failing.

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  3. Hmpf, I liked the story. Man walks around, setting things on fire, ranting about the modern times. That's solid entertainment.

    I also liked the question mark. Don't know about you, but it took me a while to guess that he's making a question mark out of forest fires, and shortly after that realization, the story focused on the piece of paper once again, and you started wondering whether that's what's written on it.

    I never once got the feeling that I'm listening to a scientist or someone who likes to think of himself as a scientist; simply a man who grew accustomed to listening to scientists explain the world, and who now feels betrayed.

    I agree that one line about narratives was dangerously meta... if it was only one short story with that theme, it would be bad enough, but we're talking about an antology here. And one where many stories are even supposed to feel constructed.

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  4. It took you a while to guess he was making a question mark? Maybe that's because nothing in the story suggested that was the case. Until the part where he said that's exactly what he was doing, that is.

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  5. just like when he tried minimalist art

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  6. The only problem I have with the critique here is that the critic is conflating "Randy" with the narrator in the story, who is not by necessity the actual author.

    The way I interpreted the story, the character is clearly some misbegotten science-fan (not necessarily a scientist) who thought he had a handle on the situation of the world as a non-spiritually-revealing ball of dirt until the Machine of Death came along. He's angry, he's apparently a criminal, he's erroneous and simple-minded in his beliefs (at least as far as nerds go) and so he's doing a really clear, if radical, response to his world being restructured.

    I agree that the writing for a lot of the description is bad and could have done with a bit of editing, but I think you were reaching later in the critique when you attacked the story based on the character's flaws rather than its flaws as a narrative.

    Otherwise, all points were apt- considering that three people edited it (Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki) you'd think it might have come out better. I think Randy and the editors should probably pay a little closer attention. Nevertheless, the book as a whole is worth reading, and I think Ryan North & co should keep tryin'. Just, edit Randy a bit closer.

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  7. "He hopped across a clear stream, feet sinking into the sandy bank on the other side, wetness seeping over the soles of his sneakers. Water was bad. He needed dry brush."

    What the shit, Randall.

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  8. The only problem I have with the critique here is that the critic is conflating "Randy" with the narrator in the story, who is not by necessity the actual author.

    It seems to have merit when you consider that this is exactly the attitude Randy takes in XKCD. I mean, I guess we could assume that none of Randy's "art" or "writing" reflects his views, but that would defy Occam's Razor.

    i think randy is trying for minimalist writing and failing.

    Randy is trying for adequacy, and failing.

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  9. "It seems to have merit when you consider that this is exactly the attitude Randy takes in XKCD. I mean, I guess we could assume that none of Randy's "art" or "writing" reflects his views, but that would defy Occam's Razor."

    yeah. Randy doesn't do characters--he's not a writer, so most of his writing is basically just author insertion. this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean you should try to avoid having super petulant characters.

    "Randy is trying for adequacy, and failing."

    well, yes. I was referring specifically to his horrible writing style.

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  10. To be honest, I found the story extremely confusing, and not in a good way.

    I mean, what the fuck is going on here? Confusing the reader, hiding things from him, not making everything explicit are techniques that work if they have a goal. Here, it's confusing for no reason. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?

    So, a guy is stealing cars and setting things on fire. We learn in the middle of the story that it is to draw a giant question mark on the surface of the earth. There is also a monologue. Who is speaking? Is it the arsonist?

    At first, I thought there were two guys, one setting things on fire, silently, and another one, his prisoner, speaking to him. Then the end kinda makes sense: the prisoner is going to let himself die, but he can't die like this, 'cuz his paper says murder.

    Then I realised I was perhaps wrong: the arsonist and the monologue guy were the same person, speaking to, I don't know, god, physics, the machine... But then, why does it say in the beginning of the story that he didn't read the piece of paper, when in the end he knows what's written on it (murder and not suicide?) It kinda makes sense if there are two guys, not if there is only one guy.

    So, maybe I'm a giant moron and I didn't get something that was very simple, but I still don't really understand the story. If you've understood, please explain it to me.

    And I'm a mensan, so if I don't understand a story, it's not MY fault. It's the author's fault (except if the author is him/herself a mensan. In that case, we play ultimate rochambeau to decide which one is right.)

    I think the reviewer should've started by analysing the story. Style is important, but here, the problem is not really the style or the weltanschauung of the narrator, it's that the story sucks.

    So I was disappointed by both the story and the review. Carl is doing something for webcomics.me. But it's gonna be on the entire book, not only Munroe's story.

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  11. I'm generally anti-posting reviews of things that aren't directly related to Randy or XKCD in some way--this is an XKCD hate blog, after all. I don't count "he has a story in the anthology" as being a direct relation.

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  12. Why is Ryan North's story titled as such?

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  13. @Anon 4:33 - "Why is Ryan North's story titled as such?"

    I imagine those are the scientists' causes of death, which sheds an even more morbid light on their dialogue.

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  14. @Rochambeau - "I think the reviewer should've started by analysing the story. Style is important, but here, the problem is not really the style or the weltanschauung of the narrator, it's that the story sucks."

    Except the two things you are ruling out as "not the problem" contribute to how good the story is. It'd be like saying "The problem with (insert movie) isn't the cinematography or the main character being totally unlikable, it's that it sucks."

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  15. If he hadn't read his slip of paper, then how does he know whether the card says "suicide" or "murder" :S

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  16. UndercoverCuddlefishNovember 7, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    we have a clusterfuck of morons here so i will clarify something: the main character plans to kill himself at the end of the story so he knows that the cause of death will be "suicide" however the reason he is killing himself is (at least the way he sees it) directly related to the machine/prediction process so his suicide could be considered murder for a very liberal definition of "murder"

    basically he is going to kill himself but he is immature enough to blame his suicide on something/someone else a la "you give me no choice"

    note: i have not read the story but this interpretation is glaringly obvious from just the passages quoted in the review

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  17. God damn, I feel stupid. I kept thinking the "dialog" was coming from a separate person whom our silent protagonist had kidnapped or otherwise convinced into joining his little journey. The story changes quite a bit when you read it that way, and the ending was very confusing to me.

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  18. Re latest XKCD: I thought the tooltip was kinda cute. Otherwise the whole comic is just kinda bland; it's unfair of me, but for some reason I'm mentally attributing the tooltip text to that guy instead of Randall. Woops.

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  19. http://www.webcitation.org/5u4y17w2U

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  20. What's with this WebCite thing?

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  21. I asked for people to post them. Randy has a tendency to change minor errors in the comic without warning; WebCite preserves the website as it was when the citation was created, so we can go back and compare the original to the updated version.

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  22. I read the short story, and i was underwhelmed. I have to agree largely with shufti's review of it. I do want to add that it could have been a worse short story. It was just obviously an inexperienced writers clumsy attempt at a very perfected art form. I think of it is an 8th grader attempted to copy the Venus de Milo (its a sculpture, look it up). Sure maybe a 8th grader could produce something that looks vaguely like the real deal, but its still kind of shitty; can you really blame him though?

    I guess it all boils down to Randy hitting my low expectations.

    As an afterthought, the story did make me ponder the philosophical implications of such a machine. The ponderings were more entertaining than the story though...

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  23. In terms of a 'meta' interpretation of the Machine of Death concept, the story that followed it (Cassandra) was brilliant. Seriously considering buying Machine of Death now.

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  24. I read the short story BEFORE reading the premise of the whole book (even worse: I was reading the WRONG story, because I followed the page numbers of the PDF file and NOT from the actual book). After reading the story, I was pretty clueless, but after reading the premise, I realised the story is painfully abysmal. If it were any other writer doing it, with more aptitude and vision, it could be a great critique against people who misinterpret science (i.e. xkcd fans and Randall himself to some extent). But this is Randall, and the thing that stains the story is that knowledge that Randall IS like that. Randall could not be bold or smart enough to challenge his views: he twists scientific concepts, makes banal errors and holds a very arrogant view on things he doesn't understand; and, apparently, FICTION is something he doesn't understand. The story goes like Randall looked at the book's premise and went "wait, this is IMPOSSIBLE in real life! It's not scientific!... hurr hurr, what if I wrote a story to make THAT point clear? It would be AWWWSUM and totally smart and show me as the clevererererest man EVRRR". It's Randall trying to show himself as smart.

    So, in short, the very starting point of the story is horrible, and the content that follows from it is, at best, mediocre. I felt like my brain was stabbed when I realised what the story was all about; shit, it's the sort of thing that could come out of my brain when I was 16, for fuck's sake: it's a whiny, bratty teenager who can't stand being challenged giving a "that will show 'em" to the world.

    I pity Randall. He just has no talent for that stuff. I wish I could say that Randall is just a very, very rough talent waiting to be polished, but even THAT is becoming impossible to believe in. I feel that Randall has as much talent for writing as a stone. An artist has to give himself entirely to what he's doing: he has to give up prejudices and preconceptions and throw himself into the unknown, and Randall here is doing the opposite. I think that, if he were an actor on a play, he'd be constantly trying to point at the director and yell "I'M JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS!!".

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. This review made me angry. In fact, pretty much all of shufti's reviews make me angry. The story sucks, but for pretty much none of the reasons he(?) wrote about. And now I would feel like a Randall apologist for defending it against those.

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  27. I liked the story, I was expecting "Heat Death of the Universe" to be by Randall, that is the worst piece of shit in there. I was expecting the worst when I started reading "?", and maybe that helped me like it because my expectations were so low, but fuck you all, I liked it.

    The narrator believes the machine proves the existence of an author or a creator, a puppet master. Which is true, and yes, meta. But I think the meta is just cleverly implied, not actually stated. The narrator is trapped in a story, and he's pissed off about it.

    It is relatable to me, in that what if I realized that I wasn't the dreamer, but the dream. It's like if a character called out the deus ex machina because he can see the strings, but did it in a way where you didn't lose the immersion. It reminds me of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" except obviously shorter and not as clever (you need computational linguists for that).

    You can call him pretentious for doing it, I thought the title was pretentious as hell, but it really wasn't that bad.

    As for Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's story (Exhaustion from sex with a Minor), the only thing that went through my mind was 'what a twist!'. Disappointing. I liked "Shot by a Sniper" though. I'll need to read Ryan North's story, I was hoping there would be one from Zach Weiner in there.

    tl;dr hurrrrrrr Randull Monroe sucks cocks AMIRITE?!?!?!

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  28. "The narrator believes the machine proves the existence of an author or a creator, a puppet master. Which is true"

    No it isn't.

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  29. You're right intelligent design doesn't explain the book at all, it obviously evolved from papyrus. Moron.

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  30. ==
    In the end, I suppose whether or not you're fine with that depends on whether you're willing to accept this as a good paragraph:

    "There was no answer. He reached the car. It was a Chevy Nova with no glass in the back window. He had bought it for $300, cash."

    I, personally, am not.
    ==

    Neither am I, and would have preferred it if it went-

    "No answer.

    He reached the car. Chevy Nova, no glass in the rear window. Bought for 300, cash."

    Now I'm not a writer, but after that I'll turn in my wanna-be badge too.

    Anyway.

    As for the story itself- let's give Randall the benefit of the doubt here. He might not be always writing about himself, this may well be the story of someone else, struggling madly to make sense of the universe.

    Said person being slightly thinking-proof.

    I mean, the premise of the story is, le-gasp, interesting. IF the Machine works, it seems like there's an intelligence coordinating stuff behind the scenes. Might not be the only explanation, but hey, cosmic stuff is afoot. Let's try and contact the Gods!

    ... by setting forests on fire then whine-fully killing ourselves. Ho-hum.

    I'll go read Ryan North's story now, hoping to see such lofty stuff properly handled.

    About Croshaw's story- I liked it. Whether the character interaction, Yahtzee's style or whatever kept my interest.

    And then wham, tomato surprise. Why? Oh, why? It kinda ruined things.

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  31. "In elementary school," he said, after a time, "kids would come up to you and ask the question, 'Are you P.T.?' It was a trick question, of course. If you said yes, they called you a pregnant teenager. If you said no, they'd say you weren't potty-trained. All you could do was reject the question. You could even," he added conversationally, "punch the kid in the mouth when he asked."

    Punch him in the mouth. Violence will solve everything.

    *Sigh*"

    Oh come on, that was probably the best part and not in the least bit serious.

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  32. Good job Randall. The latest comic had something I hadn't heard of (Knuth's book and offer), and I was still able to get the joke from the context before I Googled it. That's how xkcd should be; references not everybody will get, but punchlines that are still accessible. I don't find it funny, but hey, it's a step in the right direction at least.

    Of course, since I hadn't heard of this stuff I had to Google it. Oops.
    http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/news08.html

    Looks like Megan's going to need a time machine. Knuth stopped issuing checks in 2008. Reference fail, Randall.

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  33. Oh no, you can still cash your checks at the bank of Bank of San Serriffe. He'll still give you legal tender (or at least make the effort) if you ask.

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  34. Like everyone else said, it was an interesting observation (something that can accurately predict death must have some sort of intelligence) with retarded execution.

    Really? The thought that something can predict your death drives you to insanity, arson, and suicide? And because you choose to do all that, you're going to blame the machine as a murderer when you kill yourself?

    Also, I didn't like the writing style, and, to be honest, the premise and some of the assumptions made were just wrong. Take, for example, this gem, which is really the premise of the entire story:
    "You can't just say what's going to happen ahead of time. That's not how physical law works. That's narrative."

    Uh, that's exactly how physical law works. "If I drop this ball, it will fall at the rate of 9.8 m/s^2 until it encounters an obstruction." BAM, I said what would happen ahead of time. "If I take the square root of a negative number, the result will be imaginary." Did it again! "If, in a closed system of a fixed temperature, I double the volume of an ideal gas, its pressure will be halved." Holy balls am I ever on a roll here!

    Randall's wrong, is what I'm getting at. And arguably, with enough information, everything DOES become deterministic, and therefore everything, even death, is predictable. That means that such a machine doesn't need intelligence at all; it's simply a very, very complicated function.

    So, in short, the premise is flawed and the execution is flawed. That makes for a bad story.

    But, just so that we have a point of reference for my criticism, I also read Ryan North's story, since I really like his webcomic and everyone else seemed to think it was pretty great. I was underwhelmed.

    Again, we have an interesting concept (a machine that can predict death might be able to relay information faster than light) with a lousy execution. This is not short story material. It's pictoblog material. The scientists don't talk realistically; their dialogue serves only to drive the reader towards the point Ryan is trying to make. That's not good writing. Good writing using inference and subtlety (two things that are very possible in a short story).

    Furthermore, the premise here is also flawed. The scientists said themselves (IIRC) that there's no way to be sure what exactly the machine will say. If they kill a rat with a hammer, the printout might read, "got hammered." But, as I thought while reading that line, the same printout could also mean they got the rat drunk to the point of death. The first cause of death could also read, "cerebral hemorrhaging," or the second could read "alcohol poisoning." There's no required consistency and consequently no true predictability.

    Again, flawed premise, flawed execution, bad story.

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  35. Concerning 816:

    Um, I can find fault with the proof. Since proofs are founded on logic, without logic proofs are meaningless. Therefore, the proof itself is paradoxical.

    Just like "Will the answer to this question be no?" is nonsense, so must the girl's proof. Odd that she doesn't see it.

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  36. Quite like new xkcd. Especially - you see that ... at the end of the last panel? That is called ending the comic directly after the punchline. Quality stuff.

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  37. "Randall's wrong, is what I'm getting at. And arguably, with enough information, everything DOES become deterministic, and therefore everything, even death, is predictable. That means that such a machine doesn't need intelligence at all; it's simply a very, very complicated function."
    The information required for such an accurate prediction over such a long time scale would basically be every single particle within several light years of earth, and I really don't think it has any means of getting such information, and it definitely doesn't have the means to store it. Not to mention it would require the universal theory of everything to run its simulation. And since it accounts for the subjects reaction to the reading, I would imagine it runs multiple simulations to find a result that won't be countered by predicting it. And I don't even want to think about how it decides which death you get if there's multiple ways that could go (which I imagine there always would be).

    Basically that explanation of the machine is impossible (and i know i basically said why in decreasingly important order and could've stopped at how much information it would need but i am waiting for the first episode of The Wire to download and i have exactly zero things to do.)

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  38. Greatest problem with the story: it makes no sense. He didn't read the paper, so why does he bother? When I read the first paragraphs, I thought he was going to burn the envelope and just live his life and somehow die ironically(in a fire, maybe?). But what he really does -- burn a giant question mark across the land -- makes no sense in the context. He somehow wants to challenge the machine... but how? What does a giant question mark provide in this sense? How would anyone know it was him who did it and that had anything to do with the Machine? It just makes no sense!

    He has a good ending with the MURDER/SUICIDE issue, and I like the little "PT" rant(though it's only tangentially related to the problem at hand, if related at all), but he's got a mess of a story before it.

    In other words, our usual Randall.

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  39. Gamer_2k4:
    "Really? The thought that something can predict your death drives you to insanity, arson, and suicide? And because you choose to do all that, you're going to blame the machine as a murderer when you kill yourself?"
    Um, yes, why not. Many stories go like that, and it is justified and explained in this one.

    About the sentence "you can't say what's going to happen ahead of time" - he isn't talking about physical experiments there. He's talking about the world, or about life. And no, as a science fan, you couldn't argue that the world is deterministic if you look closely enough. That's a notion that used to be modern over 100 years ago, and has long since lost popularity. No physicist would say something like that.

    Ryan North's so far was one of the worse stories in the book, if you ask me, but only because it is too short and the connection to the deaths mentioned in the title isn't clear. The writing is typical for Ryan North, I think - somewhat stilted and unnatural, but clearly part of the style and not caused by a lack of skill. He does it for comedic effect here.

    The main idea wasn't sending information at the speed of light. That was a rather stupid idea of one of the scientists, and it didn't take another scientist to point out the flaw in his thinking. The main idea was instead developed during the conversation: using the death predictions to send a message back in time.
    I couldn't find a flaw in that one. As a thought experiment, it seems to work. Given that they take enough rats, some of them will have a death prediction that will allow them to determine in which box it must have been, thus recreating the message letter by letter.
    It's just that the idea is not THAT great and exciting. One could argue that a prediction is already a message from the future sent back in time, so... what's the point. This is where the story is too short, and what COULD have been the setup for a funny execution of the death predictions.

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  40. @Gamer

    As for 816, you don't even need to have a passing familiarity with Godel to know that, I just suspended my disbelief for that one.

    I agree with your summation of the Ryan North story, very underwhelming. I disagree with your determinism assessment though, because I subscribe to the notion that you can only predict the entire universe with something the size of the universe. And that predicting machine would then have to sit outside of the universe for it to not influence itself.

    Besides, if the death machine shows signs of cleverness, or quirkiness, or irony I would suspect that the machine is nothing more than a literary device (which it actually is). The realization of a literary device existing in your real world could reasonably cause insanity in an otherwise rational person(cue Lovecraft: OH GOD I CAN SEE FOREVER). I don't believe the machine can produce scientific causality; especially if the cause of death is differently but accurately described, even when the deaths are similar or for all intensive purposes the same (i.e. hammered, cranial collapse, etc...), it tries to fit a narrative, and thus I would conclude that it is controlled by a being that controls our fates (and since it is a story, that is true).

    The question mark is his attempt at communication with the author. I see the story in this light: Randall inserted himself into that world that Ryan North created, and pretentious Randall doesn't want to play there, because it doesn't make sense to him. From that comes a Mary Sue story that I found entertaining.

    Given his recent blog, I think Randall's grief has produced comics that don't suck as much. Well, the past three anyway, I went to about 16 before that, and gave him a pass on the Hawking one, 'cause I felt bad.

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  41. @Capn

    "As for 816, you don't even need to have a passing familiarity with Godel to know that, I just suspended my disbelief for that one."

    I understand that suspension of disbelief is necessary for a lot of things, but something like this, to me, seems like a glaring flaw. It's like that anti-spam comic a few days (weeks?) back. Was the comic bad? Well, sure. But it was made worse by the fact that Randy's idea for turning the spambots into valuable posters just couldn't work.

    I do agree that, disregarding the above, 816 was alright. You'll notice that the one nitpick was all I had, and I do like the way Knuth responds in the alt-text. It adds an extra dimension to the joke, but it's not at all necessary for the joke. In other words, it's exactly what alt-text should be.

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  42. Wow, I laughed a bit at the last comic, which is more than any xkcd I can remember in months. There's an actual punchline, and he leaves the talking after the punchline for the alt-text (which is what the alt-text was originally for), and the alt-text is not simply restating the punchline.

    As for issues of suspension of disbelief, get over it. Clearly he's just making something ridiculous happen to set up the punchline, which comes out of nowhere. He doesn't even pretend it's plausible. A more serious problem is that (as best I recall) Knuth has stopped sending checks. Still, I don't care.

    The reference is a bit obscure, but any comp sci student should have been able to catch it without Wikipedia.

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  43. re: 816, surely the point is that if you *can* logically prove that logic doesnt work, then that in itself proves that logic doesnt work. because you know the answer is wrong - and therefore the logic you've used to get there must be wrong, and if the logics correct then... bleh, you get what i'm saying, i'm sure.
    obviously logic *does* work, but thats not what the comics about. and honestly, it doesnt matter.
    It sets up a premise, and it works from that. the premise is 'someone has proved logic doesnt work' - just like in Machine of Death the premise is 'a machine can predict deaths' and in countless sci fi stories the premise is 'FTL travel is possible and routine'. all of these premises are impossible, but that doesnt matter - the quality of a story (or in this case, comic) can be judged on how well it sticks to that premise once its been set.

    I'm ashamed to admit, i actually liked this comic :( not much, but enough to smile a bit this morning.

    which is more than can be said for that godawful '?' story! I wrote more intelligible stuff when i was 14 ffs.

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  44. @Gamer

    "Take, for example, this gem, which is really the premise of the entire story:
    'You can't just say what's going to happen ahead of time. That's not how physical law works. That's narrative.'

    Uh, that's exactly how physical law works."

    And if Randall had stopped there without elaborating further I might agree with you. But he clarifies the above quote in just a few paragraphs later:

    “Physics works by saying that if you set things up like so, this is what will happen. Curses say that no matter how you set things up, this is what will happen." (Page 423)

    All of your above examples, (save the imaginary number example, which is mathematics not physics or science) are of the form "if you set things up like so, this is what will happen." If you want to claim that Randall's premise is flawed then you have to find me a physical example of the form "no matter how you set things up, this is what will happen."

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  45. Randall doesn't clarify his statement; he contradicts it. "You can't just say what's going to happen ahead of time" is vague and easily refutable. If that line hadn't existed (while the science/curse line remained), I might not have had my complaint. But it WAS in there, and Randall himself says it's wrong later on.

    Strictly speaking, curses are just predictions that seem inexplicable because not all of the variables are taken into account. Curses have the impact they do because of ignorance. Consider the curse of Tutankhamen. Sure, a bunch of people died after exploring his tomb. But there were legitimate causes for each death, making the "curse" meaningless.

    What I'm getting at here is this. So-called curses rely just as much on logic and causality as science itself, and consequently aren't any different except for their understanding and labeling. In other words, we're back to physical law, which is "saying what happens ahead of time." The contradiction exists because there's really none of the contrast Randall assumes.

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  46. Oh, and just in case you're worried I'm missing the point, here's a little more.

    "Curses don't work because they try to violate the laws of science."

    That's Randall's point, yes? The character is unsettled because there's this "power" (the death computer) that he doesn't understand. I get what Randall's trying to do. He's trying to point out that this is so alien a concept that it falls outside of science, and outside of all that the protagonist is comfortable with.

    But that's really no more than an atheist suddenly finding himself forced to believe in a God, right? If the point of the story is that such a revelation is capable of driving someone to suicide, well, it's a little more interesting than I had originally given him credit for. I still think the story has serious flaws in its writing and pacing, though.

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  47. @Gamer

    "But that's really no more than an atheist suddenly finding himself forced to believe in a God, right? If the point of the story is that such a revelation is capable of driving someone to suicide, well, it's a little more interesting than I had originally given him credit for."

    I actually interpreted the story one step further: the man's conclusion was that behind the machine must be God himself. From this point of view it's exactly an atheist forced to confront the existence of God. Or at least confront a God of a very different type than the protagonist was ready to accept.

    A relevant passage: "I was at peace with an
    uncaring universe."

    This is the heart of the story.

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  48. i am going to stab whoever compared this story to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.

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  49. Gamer 2k4 is dumb.
    I am pretty sure this is not news.

    captcha: sucstic. It seems somebody beat Randy with the sucstic

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  50. 816 wasn't great but it was tolerably bad, like old xkcd strips. I'd be happy if xkcd was just strips like that because it would still outdo 99% of webcomics.

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  51. randall munroe really needs to realize he is a terrible writer

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  52. "i am going to stab whoever compared this story to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead."

    Do terrible things to the corpse.

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  53. Comparing Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead to anything randy munroe has ever or will ever produce is bad, but it's not the worse comparison I've ever heard. That would be the time some fucktard compared Questionable Content's characters to something from a Shakespeare play.*

    *to be fair, he was probably trolling. At least I hope so.

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  54. I would pay good money to see Fayle and Cleopatra hook up.

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  55. I understood the story by the end, but for much of the story, I was utterly confused as to who Randy- I mean, the "narrator"- was supposed to be talking to. It eventually became clear, but during the time when it wasn't clear, the story was very boring and it made me want to stop reading it because I just had no idea WTF was going on.

    And yeah, I really, really got the feeling that the narrator was Randy. I mean all the whining about "This isn't SCIENCE this is like a curse and curses AREN'T SCIENCE this TOTES pisses me off BAWWW" seemed like something Randy would say.

    And did anyone else think the part about him punching the teasing school kid was some kind of wish fulfillment?

    And yeah, the writing was very stilted and awkward. Humans do not think or talk this way, Randy.

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  56. I liked the idea of the title being a question mark. I figured out early on that he was addressing a non-physical entity, though, so I can see how not understanding that (and Randall didn't portray it very well) would interfere with it.

    But when I read the title, and the first sentence, my immediate thought was "Oh, ok, it's a question mark because he doesn't know what's on the paper."

    At the end it hit me - You could interpret it as the question mark being on the paper. It was the question that killed him.

    Whoever told him to change the title from "Murder" to "?" was very clever, and I have a feeling it wasn't Randall's idea.

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  57. Only read about six of the stories [including North's and Munroe's], and:

    Randall Munroe again writes with ridiculously stilted speech. Due to his problems, no doubt.

    Besides that first freetrans line, the paragraph following really baffled me...

    "He pulled out onto the freeway, and settled the speedometer at seventy. Any faster and he might get pulled over. In any event, the car wouldn't go any faster."

    "He [[went]] at seventy. [[He didn't want to go]] any faster. In any event, [[he couldn't] go any faster." Why mention what might happen if he does something he can't do? Why, Randall???

    In the hands of a better writer I think it could've gone somewhere.

    @Ryan North's story: Perhaps Aaron Diaz's illustration is making me biased towards it, but I think it's a cute, absurd little dialogue and doesn't try to be anything else.

    @the rest: I am really enjoying the ones I've read so far -- I was expecting a collection of "wacky ironic deaths", and the choice to focus on the living in light of this monumental new view of death is actually pretty cool. With a limited selection, I think "Despair" is my favourite so far.

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  58. I didn't find the story confusing in the least, just really badly written. It was entirely obvious what was going on (past maybe the first few sentences) because Randall is such a bad writer. There was a line early on about life being a game to this master creator, it was pretty evident that the guy was alone and ranting at some form of omniscient being. And like in most of his comics, the title gave away what Narrator was doing, soon as he mentioned that there was a pattern to his burning (when he was stealing the car i think).. I mean what else would he be doing? But luckily Randall takes us by the hand and points out without any finesse or subtlety what's happening.

    I mean I don't mind obvious writing. Knowing what's going to happen isn't what makes the story horrible, it's the way that it's written.

    I dunno, maybe I just have a knack for predicting what Randall thinks. If so, it is not a fun talent to have.

    Anyway I haven't read any of the other stories, just his. I'm not really interested, just wanted to see whether he might fare better outside of xkcd.

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  59. Amanda, that is your "superpower": Predicting the end of Randall's creations. You, like, rolled a natural 1 or something when those were being dished out.

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  60. would you trade with me

    i don't even care what yours is

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  61. @Ravenzomg -
    "'He [[went]] at seventy. [[He didn't want to go]] any faster. In any event, [[he couldn't] go any faster.' Why mention what might happen if he does something he can't do? Why, Randall???

    In the hands of a better writer I think it could've gone somewhere."

    I threw this edit together:

    "He floored the pedal, redlining the car at 70. Yeah, the car was a piece of crap, but it didn't matter because he didn't want to go any faster. The speed limit was 70 and he didn't want to get pulled over. There was no way in hell he was going to let anything stop him."

    Hey guys let's play a game. Pick out your favorite worst paragraph from Randy's story and edit it to make it better.

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  62. @Amanda: Nono, it is just like "?" -- upon realizing this fact, you must go berserk, show up in his house with a large butcher knife and yell angrily as he enters the house alone at 11:30 in the evening, "I KNOW HOW THIS STORY ENDS!"

    In fact, that is nothing like "?" and far more exciting. I should have entered this Death Machine competition. The title would have been "Spoilers" =D

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  63. UndercoverCuddlefishNovember 8, 2010 at 8:14 PM

    how the fuck can anyone be remotely entertained by 816

    i was drunk when i saw it and it was not even slightly amusing

    i laugh at fucking everything while drunk

    i am still drunk

    it is still not funny

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  64. The story was confusing to me but only because I didn't know the premise of the book. But even if I knew, the "revelation" was completely pointless: he was burning a question mark. So fuckin' what?

    But yeah, I agree changing the title from "Murder" to "?" was an excellent idea, because implying that Rand-- the narrator's suicide WAS murder would be an incredibly arrogant move on Randall's part, and would have made the story even worse (yes, that is possible).

    It is a shame: the story COULD go somewhere if it was made clear that the character was some unbalanced, dysfunctional whackjob, but even then it wasn't THAT interesting. It's the kind of story that could only possibly benefit from EXCELLENT writing... and, well, the writer is Randall.

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  65. @Gamer

    I saw the story like Arthur did, that the Machine was proof of God (or God). I just went a bit further and speculated that God was the author. Probably because I used to read terrible webcomics like Bob & George years ago (I still read terrible webcomics hurrrrrrrr...).

    @Rob

    I liked R&GAD, and I like "Randull"'s little story. Come get some you fat fuck. I prefaced that obviously R&GAD is better, that's as obvious as the notion that you went swimming in the Pacific sometime around Christmas 2004. Let me further preface this by saying that the statue of liberty key ring I have reminds me of the statue of liberty, even though one was made by the French out of copper and the other was made by the Chinese out of lead.

    Either way I was reminded, because they both deal with fatalism (the whole theme of MoD is more so predictable fatalism, whether or not that's redundant, I don't give a fuck) and breaking the 4th wall to show that a story is fatalism because it has an author. I also prefer R&GAD to any other works by "the bard" (there, now I gave you a reason to stab me).

    In conclusion, sit & spin fucker.

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  66. *I also prefer R&GAD to any [strike]other[/strike] work by "the bard" (there, now I gave you a reason to stab me).

    OK, I'm a dumbass, and the way that was originally written makes me look like a bigger dumbass then I actually am.

    Your HTML cannot be accepted: Tag is not allowed: DEL

    WTF is this shit!

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  67. I guess that one could say the Machine of Death project is just Ryan North saying "hey, write a story about what would happen if this machine existed. make sure to make it clever and unexpected!" and collecting the results in a book.

    So Randall thinks to himself, "well, if that happened, it just wouldn't make sense! that can't happen! I am a man of science!". So he writes a story about a guy freaking out because the premise doesn't make sense.

    Well, okay, Randall, we all know it doesn't make sense and couldn't logically happen, but everyone else is going with it anyway, why can't you? That is what I think the real issue I have with this story is.

    I haven't read all the stories yet, but personally the worst so far is the Zero Punctuation guy's. It was well-written up to the end, I suppose, but the twist made no sense whatsoever and came out of nowhere. wtf.

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  68. Diction sucked, premise was nothing to write home about. Looks like Randy could have benefited from taking a few more "liberal arts" classes.

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  69. NOBODY else caught that while trying to criticize about flow / grammar, Rob fucked up his own sentence? (granted, I didn't read the comments, but CTRL+F did)

    "'The disruption of flow can potentially ruin the experience, which why it's so important that writers know, at least in general, how people communicate and think,' it would have been a much better sentence."

    "which why it's"

    It's not the same error as he's criticizing for, but it's still rather amusing

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  70. rob didn't write this

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  71. But it says "posted by Rob" and everything! It's incredibly obvious to anyone who read this that Rob wrote it, if you think someone else did without being told than you're a liar.

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  72. Clarification:

    Bach didn't write the magic flute. Mozart did.

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