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, July 20, 2012

1084: What is this I don't even

Hey everyone! Sexy Online Retcon Critiquing Funnies Sometimes (SoRCFS) here after a long absence/silent lurking to pop back into my favorite stick-figure-based-webcomic criticism community hosted on Google Blogger.

Since I'm not yet over to criticizing the most recent Xkcd, I think I should also take up some space thanking the other authors of this blog for posting far more frequently than I have. Props especially to T-Jack for finding things to say about comics that are hard to criticize because they're more Garfield-level bland than actually bad. Regarding my own lack of posts: while I want to blame it on some things (including getting my own comics published semi-professionally). Really, though, I can always find time to complain about things. I think it's that aforementioned blandness that's kept me from really trying to write anything. No strips really riled me up the way I reacted to, say, 972 or 980.


So now I'm going to write something obscenely long in an attempt to A) make up for almost 90 strips (30 weeks!) since my last post, and B) clarify the things that I as a published cartoonist think are wrong with this strip.

So! After that long and tedious header that 50% of all you Hypenators (which is to say, 3 people) skipped, here we go:

Title: Server Identity; Alt: Protip: Annoy Ray Kurzweil by always referring to it as the 'Cybersingularity'.

I think humor's a weird thing. What is funny varies between contexts, cultures, and levels of dignity. On the other hand, there's still some sort of science, system or what have you about how funny things are delivered. Stand-up comedians, for example, probably that it's plain out dumb to try getting your joke out while the audience is still in the middle of their pretty consistently-timed laughter. In most cases, it's better to wait for the audience to calm down instead of fighting them while trying to deliver the next part of the routine. I'm pretty sure there are conventions that dominate good joke delivery, the unsurprisingly simple explanation for that being that said conventions work.

One thing I've observed with great interest in this entire system is the role of referential humor. You know the type: you crack a joke to your friends and it's only funny because of how Fluttershy ate Edward Cullen in the season 8 finale of Smallville. Or something like that. Basically, the kind of joke where the receivers need to know some pop culture (or, even worse, the in-jokes of a social group,) to actually find it funny. Failure to understand referential jokes followed by puzzlement and, occasionally an understanding party's attempt to explain the joke.

And then you turn purple and lose the ability to hold newspapers.

Generally speaking, I think these jokes are less humorous. While I'm pretty sure there's no serious metric out there for measuring how funny things are, but it's an objective fact that parts of pop culture fall in and out of the public eye pretty quickly. This effect has only gotten more pronounced in the age where computers are connected by a series of tubes. As such, people looking at a joke based on referential humor from the past will often throw a proverbial nullPointerException and fail to understand the joke. Cue the lack of humor.

A textbook example (if you could cram this stuff in credited college courses) would be the Disney movies Treasure Planet and Chicken Little. I'm pretty sure that Chicken Little totally trumped the spacified Stevenson story in raw box office numbers. On the other hand, Chicken Little was basically Disney trying to be Dreamworks and cramming their movies full of pop culture=based referential jokes. As such, it hasn't aged nearly as well as Treasure Planet or any other film in the Disney Animated Canon.

So, where have I been going with these last 4 paragraphs and single caption? Basically, 1084 relies pretty heavily on referential humor. In fact, it's so heavy that it not only kills the humor, it is capable of yanking out of the comic any person who is not privvy to the three or so different things that were running through Randall's mind at the time. Which, as I have so cleverly determined from my totally unbiased test population of me, me, and the first few people to post on the forums, is most people.

Here's my list of referential jokes or parts that lead up to jokes, in order of increasing severity. Surprisingly, (or maybe not) they ascend with the panel number and the intended humor.
  • Panel 2- "~#ls": I'm going to assume that's a server command or some Linux thing that falls outside the purview of my personal nerdiness. Since Xkcd panders to a tech-savvy crowd I think the audience would come to basically the same conclusion I did, which is that whatever the long haired character is doing probably leads to the stuff in panel 3. This is only a problem for those of an over-curious mind.
  • Panel 3- all that crap: As far as I can tell, the joke of this comic is that the guy was trying to do something ridiculously convoluted on mutually exclusive platforms (Adobe and Android don't like each other, from what I hear). While the specifics of the joke are somewhat esoteric, I think that the intended audience and increasingly tech-savvy world should contribute a little to a better understanding of it. Failing that, there's a much simpler joke of "holy crap this is so idiotically complex" which most people should get
  • Tooltip- Ray Kurzweil: I'm not sure exactly how obscure the singularity mentioned below is, but I know about it and not this guy (who is apparently a futurist). Somehow I doubt that referencing an obscure author involved with this obscure theory is a great way to make something funny.
  • Panel 4- the singularity: The technological singularity is some obscure futurist theory about how technology will become infintely complex or something at some point in time (if you actually know the theory proper and bother trying to correct me, I'm totally going to laugh at you and not correct this post). Anyway, the theoretical comical payoff (the second one, really,) comes from the idea that this guy is so bad at computers that he would be better off waiting til computers are smart enough to correct his idiocy. This is pretty bad, because if you have to look up what the singularity is then you've just been pulled out of the comic and been distracted from the already confusing humor of panel 3. If you do manage to get the joke, then it still feels like post punchline dialog because of how it goes on longer than any witty retort really should.
So yeah. That's my bit on the problems with referential humor and analysis of how it detracts from the comic. While I feel that pop culture references can be put to good use as background easter eggs (check out what Disney's up to right now), what Randall did with this strip was rely far too heavily on them and have inappropriate faith that his readers would know what the hell was going on. What we're left with is an ineffective comic that makes sub-savvy readers stop reading it to understand what's going on.

Long story short: Randall's inability to actually bother with the flow of reading the comic is something that makes me want to write long rants and after I'm done with that, drop the name of this blog as a simple statement: Xkcd sucks.
That post was depressingly long. Here's a kitten to cheer you up!


  1. As someone who got enough of the in-jokes SoRCFS claims to have missed to have managed to read the comic without being confused, I can answer some important questions:

    Who is this comic supposed be funny to?

    People who have been Unix or Linux Server Operators for at least 10 years.

    Why is it supposed to be funny?

    "People who have only been Linux Server Operators for 5 years" are to "10 Year experienced Unix or Linux Server Operators" as "Average Computer Geeks" are to "Your Mom".

    Sadly, being in the "People who have only been Linux Server Operators for 5 years or less" category myself, and therefore the BUTT of this joke, I can't actually say with confidence if the joke would be funny to right people.

  2. If I've understood it correctly, singularity is the point in future where human minds can be uploaded into computers, and we cease to be humans in any essential sense, having melded into our technology. (thus "transhumanism")

    Wishing the singularity to happen to the person who messed his computer is a really extreme/nerdy way of saying "you'd be better off waiting this technology gets more user-friendly before you attempt this". However, knowing this does not make the strip any funnier.

  3. There are a number of definitions of "the singularity" but the basic idea is that technology gets to a point where computers are smart enough to make themselves smarter... the assumption being that since humans are able to make computers smarter, if we can make a computer as smart as a human they will be able to do the same.

    The transhumanist angle is just one of many "implications" of this point... namely "if computers are as smart as humans then we should be able to duplicate a specific human mind in a computer"

  4. as such I think the joke is "it would take longer to fix the mess you've made than to wait for computers to be smart enough to fix themselves"

  5. "Long story short"

    If only...

  6. Kitten! What a lovely kitten!

  7. Don't worry, it isn't funny to the tiny fraction of the population with the background to understand it either.

    Panel 1: We establish that the first person has a history of badly screwing up his computer, in a very unsubtle way. If XKCD had actual characters, this wouldn't be needed.
    Panel 2: The second person enters a basic Unix command (~# is the prompt, ls is the command. It's the equivalent of 'dir').
    Panel 3: The error message shows how badly screwed up the computer is. ls is never a java program (the .jar at the end), it's never in /sbin, which has nothing to do with Android, and so on. And we're expecting a file, not a device. This is the 'joke'. I think the humour is supposed to come from the degree of ridiculousness, but that's what kills it. It takes the joke too far from reality.
    Panel 4: Post-punchline dialogue. A second go, in case the first joke wasn't funny. The first person takes the error at face value and suggests a solution, not realising that the real problem is far deeper. The second person thinks he should stay away from computers entirely, and expresses this with a clumsy play on his suggestion.

    Remove the last panel, and you've got the sort of comic that's written by people who know a bit about technology and nothing about comedy. The last panel just makes it look like he realises this, and is still trying to salvage something from the mess.

  8. 2:56: You should have written this review.

  9. OBSCURE?!! There was a Time Magazine cover story: 2045-- the Singularity. It's NOT Obscure. You've been living under a rock.

  10. The annoying part is that it is easily possible to develop that same file-tree gag in a way which would make sense (at a first reading) to a larger group.

    For example, the long-haired character ("Girl") notices only one or two things amiss at first glance, and begins to explain what the problem probably is. Then midsentence, she notices a file in an odd directory, and asks him "Why is X inside Y?" As he ("Boy") can't really provide an adequate answer, Girl checks the parent directory on THAT directory, and it is even stranger. And then next, we see that it's located in a completely whacky, non-sensical location, and maybe one or two other problems are brought to light in the same instance: "So in addition to A and B, you have also got your C linked up to your D? How did you even get into this situation?"

    This would open the comic up to being understood by a lot of people who are fairly tech-savvy, just not up to speed on all the linux stuff.

    1. At the cost of killing the timing and bleeding out what little potential the comic had for humour.

      I don't know anything about Linux and was able to intuit what 2:56 had to explain to the rest of you, but that's probably because I'm a genius.

  11. well, not sure why I bothered with this, this was pretty bad as far as reviews go. I hope your comics aren't as bad as your ability as a critic.