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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Important Webcomic Post Update

I was going to post on Robert Howard's Tangents on Tuesday, but its current host is shutting down, and Howard's plans to move it to an independent host were not far enough along yet for him to implement. So it is currently being hosted on LiveJournal and is archivefree. That last bit, plus my reluctance to link to a temporary site, means you get something completely different (as in, an actual webcomic) on Tuesday.

I will make a post on Tangents when it moves to a permanent host in "a couple of weeks", though I may have a week delay to actually read the archives and write the post. I have at least three comics which I've read enough of to make it through any delays, plus a second post on Order of the Stick, so I'm good through August 19. Now I need to get to actually writing them. Throw in another webcomic blog, a fourth comic I have some things to say about even though I've actually read none of it, and a third OOTS post and I'm good through September 9. I can probably throw together something on Penny Arcade or User Friendly if I need to after that.

In other blog news, I made a change to this week's Sports Watcher upon being reminded of something.

The first in a series of Me Go Crazy posts.

I'm trying to write a post and all the yakking in the library becomes absolutely insane. Well, at least, it's driving me absolutely insane. And I complain about it, and I get handed a "code of conduct" flyer because of complaints about, among other things, me talking loud. I'm showing my frustration in a number of ways but talking loud isn't one of them! Where's the person (other than me) to tell, among others, the librarians to shut up?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 7/19-20 (UPDATED)

All times PDT.

11:30-1 PM: AVP Crocs Tour, AVP Crocs Slam Brooklyn, men's final (NBC). Yes, despite the British Open we're scraping the bottom of the barrel this week.

1-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). Tune in immediately upon the end of volleyball. Because it didn't end in a tie I originally wasn't going to comment on the All-Star Game, until people on TV started commenting on it anyway. The "this time it counts" era was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, and it's obvious that it didn't. Now there's a lot of hand-wringing about adding more pitchers to the roster, but how about tackling the problem at its source? Here are the problems with the ASG and their sources:

  • The players and managers treat it like an exhibition, instead of as a source of pride for their league. "This time it counts" was supposed to fix that problem, and strangely, it's being credited for fixing that problem. We may be able to attribute to "this time it counts" the fact we could have gone into the 16th whereas 2002 ended after 12, and the managers were prepared to use position players to pitch instead of ending the game in a tie.
  • The managers feel obligated to use every player that's willing, to mollify them but even more to mollify their fans. In the old days, it wasn't uncommon for position players to play the whole game.
  • Teams' concerns about overworking pitchers.
  • The rise of middle relievers and closers. Have a look at the 1968 All Star Game, the year before saves became an official stat. You see the same pitching carousel we see now, with a few more multi-inning pitchers - but every last pitcher was a starter, in an age where it was rare for pitchers to fail to go seven innings. The 1967 All-Star Game went 15 innings with no problem; Catfish Hunter pitched the final five innings for the AL (and ultimately lost), a feat that seems inconceivable today. Now teams protect pitchers more and gobble up large chunks of their rosters with relievers. Now pitching is not a position where players are interchangable at will - replacement pitchers have specific roles in theory - and thus is not a position well suited for all-star games. The NBA All-Star Game may well be the best all-star game, followed by the NHL, because their games actually feel like real games, unusually strong offense notwithstanding.
I'm not sure if anything can be done about any of that at this point, but if anything can, it's worth thinking about.

6:30-9:30 PM: NASCAR Nationwide Series racing, Gateway (ESPN2). Because I rarely get a chance to put up a Nationwide Series race and there's no Sprint Cup action this week.

UPDATED 7/19: ALTERNATE: 6-9 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, Fight Night (Spike TV). Not sure how highly to rate this since it's not what would normally be considered a PPV, but I don't want it to go unmentioned. Live on both coasts, so 9-12 on the East Coast.

5-10:30 AM: PGA Golf, British Open, final round (ABC). If there's a golf tournament, and Tiger isn't playing in it, does it make a sound?

10:30-1 PM: IndyCar Racing, Honda Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio (ABC). Last year ratings were inflated by the British Open. Look for history to repeat itself.

12-2 PM: LPGA Golf, State Farm Classic, final round (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday again!

2-4 PM: US Open Series, Bank of the West Classic, women's singles final (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday and Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel Weekend again!

6-8 PM: The ESPY Awards (ESPN). Because there can exist nothing for which there is not an awards show of some kind. And no network should have to go without an awards show.

Rant. Rant. Rant.

Every day I walk down here to the library because it's the nearest place where I can use the Internet for any lengthy period of time.

There are two places where I can plug in my laptop, and one of them is merely a corner that happens to have a table near some plugs. Generally I try to avoid that area because it's near the picture and other kids' books and the kids are often not old enough to know to shut up.

Sometimes I'm driven to that corner anyway. Groups come by and start yakking. People are loud at the library front desk. Cell phones go off. Today one of the reserved computers had some sort of music playing loud enough to hear. Sometimes people cough or otherwise show their illnesses.

Isn't the library supposed to be a place where people are quiet?

(The sometimes inconsistent at inopportune times Internet connection doesn't help either.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hmm. Here's another feature I'm stumbling on.

Well, it turns out that part of the reason the StumbleUpon Demo draws from such a small pool of sites is because, once the Toolbar is installed, it requires me to select several interests before I can do any stumbling.

So either I select a long list of "interests" that don't interest me at all, or the Random Internet Discovery turns out not to be so "random" after all.

I'll think this over over the weekend.


Can you believe I had my entire announcement of Truth Court all written up and ready to go, and I click to have my post get published, and my connection HAS to drop at THAT INSTANT, and it turns out that Blogger NOT ONCE saved a copy of my post, and I had to be a dumbass and not give it a current saved draft - WHY did my brain choose THAT MOMENT to brainfart on me?@ lj !!!!!!!!!

If it doesn't come up in the next few moments I'm waiting until next Thursday to announce Truth Court, if I don't wait a few months, if I end up doing it ever.
b.e jfgdb hmdjbsgkthng wblnwwswsi
(And this isn't just a loss for me. This could end up being a loss for all of America. Because of a stupid screwy library Internet connection and how badly Blogger's autosave function sometimes deals with not having an Internet connection anymore. Shiiiiiit.)

No, Ethan! Don't you know the cake is a lie? (Hey, I always wanted to say that.)

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full sized cake... mmm, cake.)

Ooo... kay. This would have more impact if we had known when the wedding was scheduled in the first place.

As it stands, it comes across as Buckley trying to scare us for shock value.

But who cares? Cake!

Hey, it's a part of the site not named Sandsday getting updated!

Street Sign Gallery is updated with a new batch of signs, all in the Seattle area. Redmond, Bellevue, and Tukwila (okay, okay, Shoreline and the University of Washington too) all get their moments in the sun, as well as a couple new Seattle pictures.

I mentioned when I started the project that I didn't know if anyone else was doing this. Well, as it turns out, I did not know the terminology at all. Apparently the standard sign is known as a street blade, and one Samuel Klein has kept up a Street Blade Gallery on his (otherwise rather diverse) blog. Both of us are on the West Coast, so most of our signs are from around here, but both of us are interested in seeing what blades you have around your community. In my case, you can send it to mwmailsea at yahoo dot com.

Warning, Around the Horn geekery ahead:

I think we're all losers in the mustache contest between Cowlishaw and Blackistone. Cowlishaw should never have shaved the goatee because he really does look like a porn star, while Blackistone just looked ridiculous yesterday, especially with those coke-bottle glasses.

The Drinking Game is updated to reflect the fact Michael Smith has not been on the show in ages and the new "Deal... (long pause) ...or no deal?" kick Reali has picked up recently (and which should have been on the list a long time ago).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Random Internet Discovery of the Week

Okay, I need to actually install the Stumbleupon Toolbar now. Once again, the first time I looked for a Random Internet Discovery I was taken to last week's RID. Then I was taken to a page that I had encountered the first time I tried to write a RID, but which I was too tired (and worn out from fighting for an Internet connection) to write about. So it looks like the demo page just cycles through a small number of select pages.

I still don't have much to say about it, in part because I don't know how to interpret it, so I'll just keep whining.

Part of the reason I didn't install the actual Stumbleupon Toolbar is that it is influenced by what you rave and what you downgrade. I want my Random Internet Discoveries to be random internet discoveries, so I may be tempted not to register my opinions. But if I keep getting sites that don't affect/effect my sensibilities at all, I may have to change my tune on that front.

So. I'm getting the Toolbar on my computer. Eventually. When I have a moment when I can close my IE windows. Sometime before next Wednesday.

Truth Court is being announced tomorrow, but the last time I mentioned it I promised something in the title that is looking more and more distant.

Whoops, I forgot to include a title for this post!

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized golem considerations.)

Skip this post if you're not any more familiar with OOTS than what I wrote in my initial post, for both spoilers and geekiness.

There are only two reasons I'm writing this post; if either weren't in place, I wouldn't write it. The first is that the forums are down as Giant in the Playground moves to a new server. The second is Celia's line in the third panel.

Two strips ago, a discussion broke out in the forums over whether or not Celia knew Belkar was in the cart or not. The general consensus, and my personal opinion, was that she did. Belkar's last line - "If we make any noise, the magical Cart Fairy might not take us on the enchanted trip to Happy Fun Sunshine Land" - was interpreted as meaning "Celia wants us on our best behavior", not "Celia doesn't know we're here". In fact I think some people hadn't even considered that Celia might not know Belkar was in there, despite it being consistent with her sometimes-ditzy and naive personality and hatred of Belkar.

The main reason was that Belkar appears to be so sick it's hard to believe he'd be able to make it into the cart under his own power. More to the point, so far as the three of them know, Belkar still has to stay within the bounds of the Mark of Justice, which means he still has to stay within a mile of Roy's body (and in that context, the sign in 573's penultimate panel, "Greysky City one mile", takes on a certain importance in hindsight). Also, Celia mentions finding "clerics", which are only strictly necessary (so far as they are concerned) for curing Belkar (although raising Roy would require a cleric of some sort; so far as they know, they can conceivably cure Belkar without a cleric). Keep in mind the original point of the expedition was to find someone capable of contacting the other half of the Order, and only secondarily to bring Roy back to life.

Well, now we know that Celia didn't know Belkar was there after all.

I'm saying this now so I can plausibly avoid the self-flaggelation the rest of the forums will undergo once they come back up. And if this sounds weak, well, it's partly because I don't have the forums to look up what the strongest reasons really were. Not that I would want to go there, of course.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Now for a strip so bland I can't even think of a title for this post.

(From xkcd. Click for full-sized reassurance.)

I think I'm regretting choosing this strip for this week's webcomic post.

xkcd is damn near impossible to encapsulate in a single sentence. That's because, much like Irregular Webcomic, it often feels like several webcomics rolled into one. It bills itself as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language", and that can often seem to be the best way to put it. Some strips are almost like visual love letters, majestic tributes to passion and love. Some strips expose just how little Randall Munroe has grown up and how much he still wants to hang on to his childhood. Some strips are (or at least used to be) ridiculously obscure math jokes. Some strips seem like political cartoons applied to Internet culture. Some strips are almost visual Twitters or blog posts. And then, of course, some strips are meme factories. Oh, are they meme factories.

The whole thing can feel like a bunch of disconnected randomness, which is in keeping with its origin as a place for Randall Munroe to post his sketchbook drawings on the Web. Not only is there no continuity (except for a few occasional arcs and themes), there are no real characters at all; there are a few distinct personas that can be identified, such as the "Black Hat Guy", but every strip (or arc) exists on its own, isolated from everything else. xkcd can perhaps best be compared to a "thought of the day"; every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there's something new to make you think.

So it's harmless enough, and it's thought-provoking and occasionally even funny. The problem is... well... I'm not sure what to make of it.

It gets a bad rap for making obscure math jokes (which hasn't really been a problem for a while, I find, which probably says more about me than it does about xkcd), but it's still very much targeted to a specific well-educated nerd demographic. In fact, this probably accounts for much of its broader popularity; it makes a number of strips tightly wound in with programming, and the people in those sorts of jobs are probably the largest group with the deepest immersion in the Internet. I mean, they're in all the various sites that could conceivably be used for networking.

The problem is, Munroe has subsequently broadened his webcomic's appeal in response to this broader audience, but he hasn't completely forgotten his roots - and the result isn't entirely successful. I originally wrote this post with a note saying that from now on I needed a two-week buffer to decide on a webcomic to post on, and I'm still going to take a look at another webcomic blog next week, and may spend the following three weeks on strips I'm already familiar with. Then today's strip came out, and I realized the reason I didn't have much to say on xkcd wasn't because I hadn't gone through the experience of opening up the day's strip, it was because... I didn't have much to say on xkcd.

Like I said, xkcd is a perfectly servicable little webcomic, but there's nothing in it that makes me feel anything in particular whatsoever. That it doesn't compel me to read it every time it updates the way Order of the Stick does may be damning in and of itself, or it may betray a personal bias towards story-based comics. (Or, depending on your point of view, it may expose my lack of qualifications for reviewing webcomics. After all, I like Ctrl+Alt+Del. What do I know?) But it's not impossible for a gag strip to pull me in simply because it's knock-your-socks-off funny every time it updates. Eric Burns has identified that being funny may be a more important prerequisite to getting a webcomic off the ground than having a compelling story, because on some level, everyone identifies with humor, but not everyone wants continuity in their Internet entertainment.

Well, xkcd isn't consistently funny. There, I said it. Oh, it has flashes of brilliance, but... even they aren't as funny as even Ctrl+Alt+Del can be at its funniest. It's almost more Funny Peculiar than Funny Ha-Ha. The recent "MacGyver Gets Lazy" strip is about as funny as xkcd tends to get these days. xkcd used to be funny, back when most of its humor was only comprehensible to math majors, but it's clear that Munroe is out of his element trying to speak to non-nerds.

Humor and story are the two biggest tools a webcomiceer could have for bringing in readers. Munroe used to have humor but no story; now he has neither. He brings the Saccharine, and the Romance, but he doesn't bring the Funny, in Burns' vernacular. The result is that xkcd tends to be very sentimental when it's not steamy, but it's rarely funny (so says the Department of Redundancy Department), so it tends to play to its existing audience, occasionally propping up its flagging popularity by churning out another meme for the Internet to go ga-ga over, such as its recent "xkcd loves the Discovery Channel" strip.

I don't hate xkcd. And I'd be an idiot to slam it for its art style, not only considering that I "draw" a minimalist webcomic myself, but that I exonerated Ctrl+Alt+Del for its artistic failings last week, claiming among other things that "art doesn't matter". I'm of the opinion that you should actually be suspicious of a webcomic with good art, because if it's trying to be nice to look at it may be trying to distract you from its lack of substance (see: Dresden Codak). But it feels kind of bland to me, a vanilla webcomic, for lack of a better term. The featureless stick-figure art isn't so much a problem in itself as it is emblematic of a general ethos, one where a bunch of little things happen and add up to nothing in particular.

xkcd isn't a bad webcomic. It can be great at times. But it doesn't give me any reason to commit to it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It's almost the very definition of mediocrity.

Contest! Come up with the most pleasant use of "we need to talk" you can by 8/1 and I'll use the winner in Sandsday or Da Blog, cause I got nada.

(From Ctrl+Alt+Del. Click for full-sized The Talk.)

Oh no.

Oh hell no.

Near as I can tell, this can only lead to one thing: the dissolution of their impending marriage, thus causing two years of storyline to be reduced to "shaggy dog story" in less than three months or so.

I mentioned in my CAD post that I was leaving open the possibility of the miscarriage storyline being the start of a descent into First and Ten Syndrome, but that I also wasn't ruling out CAD recovering from it. Things are not looking good for the latter possibility right now.

The silver lining is that the Lucas-Kate relationship is, at the moment, the only other piece of dramatic continuity in Ctrl+Alt+Del (not counting the main characters' jobs; Ethan's and Lucas's have never really been used as a source of any real drama, and Lilah's hasn't even been brought up in ages). If the Ethan-Lilah relationship is reduced to "just friends" (going with a full-scale separation leaves open the door to more drama) it could mean pulling back from the Cerebus Syndrome ledge, returning to a largely pre-2006 status quo, and devoting more strips to wacky hijinks.

So it's entirely possible that, far from jumping off the ledge to First and Ten Syndrome, this strip marks a hard slam on the brakes before reaching it. If so, though, it's a clumsy way to drop the relationship, and it's kind of doubtful anyway.

And if Buckley manages to throw in one more heart-wrenching dramatic turn into his comic, even after coming through with this? That may be enough to drive me away from Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Tread lightly, Buckley. I'm watching you.

(I promised two posts over the weekend and delivered neither. They are forthcoming but will probably wait until Thursday, and one of them may take even longer.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I could certainly say something about David Morgan-Mar's experiences trying to nitpick the plausibility of Coruscant in IWC, except I just did.

(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized information.)

No, this isn't breaking up my plans for a webcomic post on Tuesday. This is what Robert A. "Tangents" Howard would call a "secant", a look at a particular strip or a moment in time for a comic, as opposed to a "tangent", or a look at a strip as a whole. Of course, if you know your geometry, you might expect those meanings to be reversed, with a "tangent" only touching the circle at a single point, while a "secant" cuts through the circle and thus includes a broader span. But if you prefer, the tangent leaves the circle whole, while the secant takes a section of a circle and looks only at that.

The strip I intend to look at isn't today's, above, but the one put out a week ago, in which we finally learned the name of the player playing Anakin. (So maybe the thumbnail should be that strip instead of today's.) The reason I didn't write this then was because I was knee-deep in my Ctrl+Alt+Del write-up. And when that was published on Tuesday, there was a new strip up. And so I didn't decide to write this until I woke up Friday morning thinking, "You know, I should probably write a blog post about this."

Darths and Droids intends to answer the question, "What if Star Wars, instead of being a series of movies, was an RPG campaign played out by several players and a GM?" I explained the concept some in my Irregular Webcomic! post, but what's important to understand now is that this means that each character (that isn't an NPC played by the GM) exists as both a player and as the character in the game/movie that he plays. For example, Jar-Jar Binks, the Gungan that everyone loves to hate, is also Sally, the 9-year-old girl who plays him. Sort of.

To someone familiar with the in-jokes of the movies, it makes sense that Qui-Gon Jinn would be named by someone named Jim, or Obi-Wan Kenobi would be named by someone named Ben. But Anakin was introduced as an NPC before Annie was introduced, as Anakin's mother Shmi. She then switches to playing Anakin for the pod race, who himself is briefly moved to Jim when Annie is late for a game session, and then moves back to Shmi when the pod race is over, all the while trying not to give away that Annie would play Anakin for good, and in my opinion, failing. All the while, the Comic Irregulars take care never to mention her real name. (In fact, it virtually never comes up at all. This isn't a situation where all the characters constantly and awkwardly dance around "that thing" to the extent that the effort being expended into keeping "that thing" secret seems like it's not worth it. There are maybe one or two times where Annie's name would even warrant mentioning at all.) The annotation for the revelation of Annie's name reveals the reason for all this misdirection: "Shmi had a meatier role which lined up better with how we wanted to characterise Annie initially."

And what was it that the Comic Irregulars wanted to portray Annie as before moving her into the role of Anakin? She's introduced as a friend (or at least acquaintance) of Ben's who learned about the game in her drama class and wanted to observe it, but was immediately pressured by the GM into joining. She takes to the game almost immediately and not only almost never speaks out of character (unlike all the other players), she quickly becomes a font of ideas about her character, her son, and the game world. (Until I reread these strips I was worried that the Comic Irregulars were themselves getting too immersed in the game world and forgetting the "as a role-playing game" aspect of their premise. In my defense, Sally was being quick to make stuff up as well, and the GM is often disturbing when he's talking to himself.)

Watching Annie getting introduced to the game early is an enlightening experience. An early annotation sums it up well:
Being a drama student, Shmi's player was a bit sceptical about this roleplaying game thing at first. She thought it might just be a group of gung-ho guys rolling dice and pretending to fight one another. But she's rapidly learning a lot of the subtle nuances that can be brought to bear to make the characterisation of PCs intensely rich and detailed.
Most RPG players have probably never thought about their game the way Annie does. They're probably science fiction or fantasy fans who fancy themselves as their own little Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, out to save the kingdom and ravish the beautiful princess. Certainly that's how Jim sees the game in Darths and Droids. Some (rather notorious) classes of players, like Pete, ignore the "role playing" and focus solely on the "game" aspect, trying to perfectly optimize their characters as much as possible for the biggest impact in combat. (Pete plays R2-D2, who speaks in bleeps and bips so Pete could use the bonus skill points from making him mute to make him an absolute, well, machine. It's a well-known RPG tactic: take the weaknesses that don't hinder you in any appreciable way and make the resulting character unbeatable.)

The Comic Irregulars looked at the concept of what an RPG game would be like for someone completely unlike the standard RPG player stereotype before, when they introduced Sally, who also sees it as solely a "game" but for whom "game" means just having as much fun as possible (not trying to "win" like Pete), except it's a "role playing" game so it's also an opportunity to play make-believe. But they hadn't explored it nearly as much with Sally as they have with Annie. Annie is the complete opposite of Pete: she ignores the "game" and focuses on the "role playing" aspect. For her, this is no different than what she goes through in drama class. It's an excersize in acting and improvisation. She's also prone to point out standard tropes of heroic tales. In a sense, it's a perfect choice for her to go through the sort of development Anakin goes through, turned to the Dark Side through his passions to become the major villain of the original trilogy, all in the name of increasing the dramatic tension. But having her play an innocent little kid from the start might have, by necessity, given people the wrong idea about her character, that she's fundamentally not much different from Sally, and (without revealing her name) possibly male to boot. Although it's certainly doable.

(Annie also borders on being a role-playing Mary Sue, making up a new language with the GM without the latter even realizing it and giving the GM virtually an entire book on how she wants to play Anakin.)

The way in which the Comic Irregulars handled a possibly unavoidable problem (they are restricted by the original movies) was a bit clumsy in places, and by their own admission, raised a couple of problems. But now that that's past, I'll find it very intriguing to see how Annie spins multilayered tragedy out of a character Pete originally dismissed as "a completely unimportant NPC". I'm perfectly willing to forgive a few bumps in the road leading to this point for a story that promises to become, immediately, infinitely more rich and interesting, and very... dare I say it... Order of the Stick-esque.

Well played, Comic Irregulars. Well played.