Died in a Blogging Accident has lived up to its name and died... in a blogging accident. That is to say it has concluded. You can still re-live the magic by clicking here to start at chapter 1. For genuine criticism of XKCD, please click the top link to the right (XKCD Isn't Funny).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Comic 985: That's a looooot of alt-text.

Hey everyone, this is SoRCFs (on Randall's Comic Forums: Schadenfreude) (SoRCFS) here with some more reviewage and whatnot. Since Gamer_2k4 has decided to bugger off to parts unknown and leave miscreants such as myself in charge here, I'm mourning his passing by doing a somewhat timely post. Don't count on this being a regular occurrence. At all.

title: Percentage Points;alt text: Grayton also proposed making college scholarships available exclusively to sexually active teens, amnesty for illegal immigrants who create room for themselves by killing a citizen, and a graduated income tax based on penis size. He has been endorsed by Tracy Morgan, John Wilkes Booth's ghost, and the Time Cube guy.

You know what I occasionally enjoy doing? Pretending I'm Robin (the Burt Ward one) from the old campy Batman series. And by saying that, I mean I enjoy imitating his overused "Holy [something fancy], Batman!" catchphrase. That said, don't look at me strangely when I say this:

Holy four lines of alt-text, Batman!

I did something weird a few days ago: I reread the early archives of Xkcd. Okay, so there's not too much to say about it. It was way back before Randall had a huge fanbase to pander to and otherwise appear nerdy at. I've alluded to reading a lot of webcomics before, so what I saw was nothing unexpected for a fledgling artist--a little less consistent art, less of a feel for what the comic is about, that kind of thing. But you know what struck me most? Brevity. The first comic's alt-text is three words long. Tiny. It added a little something meaningful to the comic, but didn't distract the reader from what they had just read.Compare that to today's. Ew. 985 shows up as a whopping 4-line, 50 word, 317 character (268 excluding spaces) monster.

The joke isn't one I find funny, but humor's subjective so I'll let that one slide (in this case). Even if I found this joke humorous, I still wouldn't laugh. Why? Because I had no clue where the comic was going. My eyes followed, in order, the title, text in panel, the caption under it, and finally the monstrous tooltip.

Here's a brief view of what's going on in my head at that point:
Title: "Percentage points" Okay, so it's all about--
Panel: um--drunk drivers? Drone strikes on Christmas? I what is going on--
Caption: Wait polls now?
Tooltip: What is going on??!?!?!
Afterwards: Okay, I need to reread this. Dammit.

The Alt-text is busy. So is the panel. In fact, it's so busy that I forgot about the title (which foreshadowed the allegedly funny caption) on the way down. It's not that I have ADD or something--I just couldn't see how it was funny through the thicket of other jokes. When the focus of the comic--"Percentage points" as the now-forgotten title had told me about--hit, I was just confused because it seemed like the joke hadn't been set up everywhere.

One thing I sincerely hope Randall will learn is that you can't always fit more than one joke into a comic. Of course it's possible: see this Brawl in the Family (and commentary!) for an example of a secondary joke in the background that doesn't detract from the what the author's been building up the whole strip. But in this Xkcd? The extras distract from the joke that the title indicates he wants to make fun of or complain about or something. As a result, the actual joke feels underdeveloped or, in my case, not there at all.

Here's a "Sucks (not that much) Less" from me:

title: Percentage Points;alt text: Don't we all.

Okay, Still not funny. But it's clear on what joke it's trying to get through. That's at least a step in the right direction.

tl;dr: the alleged joke is buried inside a mountain of other jokes. The two parts are bad for each other.

Addendum: The sharper-eyed members of the audience will notice that I reused the til-now solitary "list comic" tag. Well, to be fair, the list isn't exclusively on the comic. It extends through the tooltip as well.

And another thing: The tooltip! I just realized I started talking about the tooltip and didn't really go back to it. Uhm, that's totally intentional. See what happens when you start with one thing, distract the audience with something else, then go back where you started? They're confused as hell! This was totally a self-demonstrating article! Right, guys?




  1. I think he was trying (with the extra terrible jokes in the beginning) to make it clear that this is a candidate who's support has fallen drastically but that newsman commenting on it makes it ambiguous if this has causes the candidates numbers to drop by 19% of their current level (so down to about 19%) or by 19 percentage points (do down to 1%).

    You are totally right that he missed his own point... which wasn't funny in the first place... I just thing the "extra" jokes were MEANT to have a purpose...

    The alt-text is just "stuff I couldn't fit into the panel" though... if he had stretch the comic out to three panels he probably could have fit all that stuff into the panel and then the alt-text could have been the "I hate the ambiguity ..." part.

    Anyway... Dude is going to lose with 20% 19% or 1% of the vote so the joke is was lost from the start. If the candidate had 60% of the vote and lost "%17" and the ambiguity was between him now having "50% of the vote" or "43 percentage points" then it would at least make sense and he could make a joke based on that, but... I just don't see any way to redeem it... there's nothing to work with.

  2. Also, why do doctors use odds ratios instead of straight percentages or likelihoods? And what's up with positive predictive value vs. negative predictive value? Can't we all just adopt a signal detection theory approach and talk in terms of d-primes and Cohen's d effect sizes? I feel a giant infographic about foibles in the communication of fractions and changes in fractions over time. Also error bars: ever heard of them?

    xkcd is the new Andy Rooney. Leaner and meaner and faceless.

  3. So I totally asked the Xkcd forumites if they'd be willing to make a graph of alt-text length vs comic number. Apparently they were, and more than one person responded. The most timely full one:

    It's a bit more varied than I expected, but you can easily see the length creep up over time. Oh, and I spent a minute in MS paint trying to add in a rough trendline. I estimate that the trendline would predict a tootlip of 30 characters at comic 0, and something like 160 characters for the present day.

    [In the highly unlikely event that the trend continues linearly, in 10 years comics like 862 would be normal in terms of character count.]

  4. Looks like a heart attack.

  5. Interesting graph. I wonder if it would be possible to calculate the number of words in the comics themselves. Without doing it by hand, that is!

    Then again that task could be "crowdsourced"? Are there enough readers in this blog to facilitate that task, or would the forumites be interested to do it?

  6. I expect the comics have been transcribed to facilitate a search function (most popular webcomics have fans working on such a project), so most of the legwork for making such a calculation has probably already been done.

  7. View the page source of an XKCD comic... there is a div element with id="transcript" and style="display: none;" that contains the transcript of the comic if it is available.

  8. Thanks SinbadEV. There indeed is a transcription.

    I leeched all the html to my drive. I'll see if I can parse the visible text in some meaningful way and make some graphs. No doubt someone has done all this before, but it does not matter... it'll be "fun".

    -anon 2:46

  9. Disagree with the review.

    I felt like Randall's main point was so uninteresting (ie nerdish pedantry) that the extra jokes added something (ie an element of humour)!

    Personally I don't mind more than one joke per comic, as xkcd jokes have such a low chance of being funny that having more than one increases the chance that the comic will be worth looking at...

  10. So basically you're whining for 7 paragraphs that you had to read one too many sentences.