Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bonus (#1101): xkcd

Randall Munroe is living the dream. True, his is a different fantasy than most -- as children, many of us hope to become, say, astronauts, whereas he actually quit his NASA job to follow his childhood dream of drawing comics -- but this hardly detracts from his story's natural charm.

Charm? Maybe that's not the right word. xkcd: volume 0 is many things to many people (and possibly everything to computer engineers), but its edgy content largely precludes "charming" as an accurate descriptor. (Unless you happen to be a computer engineer, in which case you don't likely read blogs anyway.) Munroe trains his comedic laser on targets near and far, concrete and abstract, some obvious and others esoteric. In one strip, he muses on the awkwardness of having "to suppress the weirdest thoughts" when meeting a girlfriend's family: "Hi! It's so nice to finally meet you!" proclaim her stick-figure relatives, while he mentally relives their sexual exploits. Earlier, he draws a tri-circular Venn diagram with the labels "people who can always make me smile," "people who constantly show me new things to love about the world," and "people I want to spend the rest of my life with." In the overlapping space of all three circles is written "you;" in the space shared by the latter two, "Vanilla Ice." The sentiment feels oddly autobiographical.

Although Munroe's writing caters to the nerdy elite -- as one representative example, the book includes a joke about the author being barred from major cryptography conferences for various behavioral flaws -- a good portion of the humor is comprehensible to the non-techie crowd (in other words, those for whom the word "python" conjures snake imagery and not if-elseif statements). This is true even though, for example, Munroe numbers his book's pages with a binary-derived system that has already spawned entire Web pages devoted to its formula. Ultimately, it is the sheer randomness of the book that produces the most laughs, as when a particularly inventive soul poses with a chess board (complete with glued-on pieces) on a roller coaster for a souvenir photograph, or when lyricism is employed in a flowery ode to things banal or cliched ("center, silken sheets sensuously caressing soft skin, contentedly sleeps your mom," reads one moving passage).

Admittedly, a large part of xkcd's allure is its applicability to reality. "The Problem with Wikipedia" portrays an online journey beginning with a Wiki-article on the "Tacoma Narrows Bridge" that eventually results, "three hours of fascinated clicking" later, in reading on everything from "William Howard Taft" to "Lesbianism in Erotica." A similar chord is struck with a pie chart displaying "profanity usage by cause:" overshadowing the small slices comprised of "injury," "irony," "misc," and (nerd joke alert) "segfaults," is the largest slice: "Mario Kart." Each strip is accompanied by microscopically-sized bonus text; for this last one, the comment reads, "You can evade blue shells in Double Dash, but it is deep magic." (As someone who remains largely abstinent from video games, I'll have to take his word for it.) And then, there are some pages that simply reverberate for those of us with sadistic tendencies, as in "My Hobby: Appending 'No Pun Intended'  to Lines with No Puns in Them." 

xkcd: volume 0 has the look and feel of a coffee-table staple, but its content prohibits it from occupying such a treasured position in, say, an overly dignified household or anywhere in close proximity to young children. This is really too bad for those baby boomers and others who may miss much of xkcd's comic value; fittingly, their incomprehension of the book's irony is best described using Randall Munroe's own words: "epoch fail."