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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On April 4, 1748, the French were embarking in the last major offensive in the War of the Austrian Succession, and someone wanted to run a human through the then-new field of taxidermy.

(From mezzacotta. Click for full-sized complex games. IE users will need to get something to allow them to see SVG files.)

On October 10, 2008, the long-running, once-delayed-but-twice-changed, countdown running at finally reached its conclusion, unveiling the latest project from the circle of friends known as the Comic Irregulars (named for Irregular Webcomic! and best known for Darths and Droids).

The centerpiece of the site was a webcomic. One requiring SVG support in order to be able to see it. One with archives going back before the site's launch... indeed before the advent of the Internet... indeed extending into the BC era... indeed before the estimated age of the entire universe. Obviously such a comic would need to be automatically generated in order to have archives dating back that far, and indeed most of the characters and lines seem to fit a cookie-cutter pattern, from identified sources ranging from the Dungeons and Dragons manual to Irregular Webcomic! In fact, there are certain patterns with certain "characters" that has led to the creation of a cast page.

(The only thing missing? Lines from other webcomics not affiliated with David Morgan-Mar. I know he's done at least three xkcd pseudo-parody strips, I'd like to see the characters spout some lines from that - that'd be really surreal. Dinosaur Comics would add an... interesting vibe to say the least, and might fit best of any other webcomic. Order of the Stick would make the whole thing even more surreal yet paradoxically give the D&D manual quoter someone to talk to. Really crappy idea, but it kinda fits, for reasons I get into below.)

But how? The strip "for" the most famous date of this millenium (and a few others) call it a "randomly generated comic", which would seem to suggest each strip in the "archive" is only generated when someone visits that date. Since each date generates the same strip each time, that would in turn seem to suggest the mechanism in place then saves that comic to that date for any future visitors. 24 hours after the site's launch, David Morgan-Mar (the group's apparent leader and proprietor of IWC) seemed to back up that theory by proclaiming mezzacotta the new comic with the most strips (supplanting Sluggy Freelance) on the basis of how many strips had been viewed in the archive, a statistic that would be most relevant under such a model.

But why use a two-part mechanism for that purpose? Why set yourself up for future potential space strain down the road by even having the endless archive in the first place? How do we know this "evidence" isn't a misdirection, and the comics are actually generated based on some formula from the date, one complex enough it might seem random? With the evidence seemingly this obvious, why are Morgan-Mar and the other Comic Irregulars still putting on a show about being tight-lipped about all the workings?

With the method of comic generation, the vast majority of the comics are bound to be incomprehensible crap, but that comes with the territory; a comic rating system allows more comprehensible and even funny comics to rise to the top and get viewed more. But mezzacotta the webcomic - which derives its name from some form of the Italian for "half-baked" (good luck reverse-engineering that result from an automatic translator though) - is just one example of a, well, half-baked idea to come out of mezzacotta the site. As Morgan-Mar described it on the first day:

I lamented that the problem with our furious generation of ideas and our attempts to implement them was that we kept needing to register new domains for sites that might turn out good, but are in fact more likely to turn out truly half-baked and never do much. What we needed was a single site which could be a central repository of half-baked ideas that we sort of half-implement, to see if they’re any good.

mezzacotta is that site. [...]

So, the initial idea was half-baked. The countdown timer was half-baked. ... The webcomic is half-baked. Everything about this site is half-baked. That’s what mezzacotta is.

Welcome to our central repository for half-baked web implementations of half-baked ideas. Most of the stuff on this site won’t be great. But by just throwing it all out there and daring to be stupid, you’ll get to discover the rare gems that we might generate and not immediately recognise ourselves.

Coming up with ideas is easy - anyone can do that. Actually doing something about them is the hard part. Anyone who’s done it knows how much sweat you have to put in to get an idea beyond the “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” stage. This is our place for doing the hard work. It’s a spur to drive us to do something with some of those crazy half-baked ideas we get. And hopefully we’ll entertain a few of you, rather than just ourselves.
It's impossible to say anything about the above without in some way rephrasing it. Beyond being a single... experiment, for lack of a better word, mezzacotta is a place for throwing ideas on the wall and seeing what sticks, some of which amounts to little more than that, some of which results in some actual implementations. That includes even a couple other webcomics.

Lightning Made of Owls, inspired by a completely random phrase posted on the mezzacotta blog, is essentially a redo of a pre-mezzacotta concept, Infinity on 30 Credits a Day, both of which are attempts at collaboratively-written-and-drawn comics. Because ∞ on 30Cr a Day has an ongoing story, it's gotten bogged down in administrative tasks and competition for the "best" strips. LMoO was conceived from the start as a gag-a-day comic with six characters that are very rough sketches, with comics to be sent in completed, not as scripts for artists to work on. Needless to say, the result is somewhat... disjointed, and there's very little to unite the various appearances of the characters into coherent, well, characters.

More interesting - and potentially making its way into my RSS reader - is Square Root of Minus Garfield, inspired by Garfield Minus Garfield and other mashups of the Garfield comics. Let me say upfront that I don't really get the hatred many have for Garfield. I find it entertaining enough, and in fact it's one of only four newspaper comics I have really taken an interest in getting the book collections for and following in any way. In recent years (by which I mean the most recent years to be released in the book collections) it's felt like it's been running out of ideas, and the seeming disappearance of such characters as Arlene, Pooky, and to a lesser extent Nermal seems ill-timed and exascerbating to the ongoing decline, but the early years, through the mid-to-late 90s at least, were funny enough comics to hold me captivated. (But then, I read Ctrl+Alt+Del.) I hear (again, I only keep up with the book collections) that in recent years Jim Davis has resorted to advancing the Jon-Liz relationship beyond the unrequited and hopeless puppy love it had been for, what, two decades? That just smacks of desperation to me.

Secondly, as popular as G-G has become (to the extent of actually inspiring an officially sanctioned book), I actually find the mashups that remove Garfield's dialogue, not Garfield himself, to be more appealing. G-G essentially says, "Wouldn't it be cool if we took these Garfield strips and get rid of the title character? See how crazy Jon looks!" Only stripping the dialogue, on the other hand, has a more appealing hook as - assuming Garfield isn't actually speaking despite the thought balloon and isn't communicating through telepathy - it depicts how things actually happen from the perspective of the human characters. It really drives home the idea that Jon is crazy when it actually reflects something actually happening in-universe.

(Incidentially, take a look at the strip to the right, from page 3 of the original T&BB thread. It attracted such comments as "I can't even imagine it with Garfield saying something" and even "This is one of those weird ones, where you know Jon isn't actually supposed to hear Garfield, but clearly this is in response to something Garfield said. Huh." Certainly that's a common enough feature that it's sometimes confusing whether or not Jon is or isn't supposed to "hear" Garfield's thoughts. Replying to the latter comment, one poster psychoanalyzed the resulting mashup:
I like it because it's as though Jon takes a moment to consider what he said, mentally kick himself and then project that hatred onto his cat. It's a neat little psychological study that I quite like. I'm not entirely sure that Jim Davis didn't plan this all along and that we're merely forging the next step of his global empire.
The kicker? The original comic - posted at left because the Garfield web site doesn't seem to have a way to permalink to old comics, which is kind of ironic and stupid when you think about it because it forces people like me to "pirate" the strip, and forces √-G to link to the individual comic images, neither of which allows Garfield to benefit from its web advertising - doesn't actually have Garfield saying anything in the second panel. In fact, all he says in the strip is "I didn't say anything". Jon's remark actually was in response to nothing in particular, and much of his neuroses in the "modified" strip actually were intended, rather obviously, by Davis all along - or don't exist even in the "modified" strip. Does this say more about Garfield (and if so, is it positive or negative), or about the people who like to bash it?)

Anyway, √-G is essentially a different mashup of a different comic each time it comes out. Some of them so far are really little more than changing the dialogue or the pictures in a slightly surreal way, and one really only shines a light on an old series of strips with two identical panels. But it's somewhat fascinating nonetheless for anyone who's been interested in Garfield mashups. And... I don't know why I wasted time with other Garfield related stuff.

But I do have to sympathize with the Comic Irregulars' plight. I too have way too many ideas than I would ever be able to work on. The web site is, in many ways, my own version of mezzacotta, a repository for all my many and varied ideas, be they the 100 Greatest Movies Project (still on indefinite hold), my street sign gallery, Sandsday, the football lineal titles, or my college football rankings. And then there are the projects I host right here on Da Blog. There are some ideas that, for some reason or another, I just can't implement, at least alone. Here's a brief start on getting started on a list of ideas I may not be able to implement myself, but that I'd like to see fruition in some way, shape, or form:
  • Election results based on my projection formulae. Would require a source of results and a group of people willing and able to call races based not on their own biases, not on unreliable exit polls, not on past performance, but on nothing but the results themselves.
  • Truth Court: Sorting out fact from fiction in politics based on hard evidence, and always open to new evidence or a new interpretation of old evidence. Like Mythbusters or Snopes, but more focused on questions like "Do people cause global warming?" and "Was the 2000/2004 election stolen?" and "Do gun control laws help or hurt violent crime?" and "Was 9/11 an inside job?" and "Does supply-side economics really work?" and "Who's really to blame for economic and/or foreign turmoil, the current president or the preceding one?" and...
  • Similarly, a (bi/nonpartisan) web site dedicated to "keeping the media in check - and the blogs that watch them".
  • The 100 Greatest Movies Project, currently on hold indefinitely on my end unless and until my old USB drive's stuff comes back. Even if I have to shut it down, I'd like to see someone else take it over and do it justice; even if it does come back, I know for a fact I need a third person to do write-ups (I have two at the moment, including me). More here.
That's just the ones for which I've solicited comment at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com (except the third). I have a bunch more ideas bouncing around in my head, some of which I just haven't mentioned, some of which I'd still like to try to do myself, some of which I don't feel I can reveal yet. I'm a veritable font of ideas in a wide variety of topics. I can only hope that I can bring as many as I can out into the open for you to peruse... and that they don't turn out half baked.


dmm said...

Wow, lots in this post.
1. Thanks for the reportage.
2. Interestingly, in looking carefully through old Garfield strips, we were actually discussing today that some of them are actually quite edgy and funny. So we don't hate Garfield, although given its long run I feel that a good many of its jokes have been recycled a lot. On the gripping hand, Jim Davis seems to be a genuinely nice guy, so it's hard to get much hatred going.
3. We sympathise with your creative urges! :-) Hopefully you'll find the time to work on more of them.

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