Webcomic Roundup

I’ve already been over some of my favorite bloggers in the past, but you may have noticed that bloggers aren’t the only thing in my sidebar.  Although I enjoy all art forms, comics are a particular pleasure for me, and since webcomics are usually free I tend to read a lot of them.  Here are my favorites:

  • Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell might well be my favorite comic of all time, online or off.  It hits all my weak points: alternatively funny, serious, and touching, with a story featuring both technology and magic, told through expressive and well-rounded characters.  It’s smart, imaginative, and very well-written and drawn (though, like many of the comics on this list, its early pages are much rougher than its later ones).  Tom plans each page meticulously and has probably had the entire story planned out start-to-finish since the beginning–relevant plot details will regularly be foreshadowed many months or even years in advance.  In short, it’s excellent, and you should start reading it from the beginning right now.
  • Dresden Codak is the kind of comic that could only have existed on the internet.  Especially in his earlier stories, creator Aaron Diaz frequently makes various scientific references that will leave you feeling really stupid, then really smart after you’ve been to Wikipedia so you can get the joke.  His art and writing are both brilliant, a little surreal, and frequently esoteric.  The biggest downside of his comic is that it only updates about once every hundred years.  You can start reading it from the beginning here.
  • A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible–hm.  Well, basically, imagine Dresden Codak turned up to eleven.  Kind of.  Very surreal, very highbrow, frequently makes literary and/or philosophical references that will leave you feeling stupid and/or smart, occasionally flirts with continuity but doesn’t really make a habit of it.  Written by Dale Beran and drawn by David Hellman (who also did the art for Braid), it updates approximately once every thousand years.  You can read it from what I suppose is technically the beginning here.
  • El Goonish Shive by Dan Shive is something of a guilty pleasure of mine–it’s a fun, quirky story about a group of teenagers featuring magic, aliens, relationships, and frequent shapeshifting and gender-bending.  It’s funny and cute and I like it, okay? Stop looking at me like that.  The first comic is here (and yes, the art and writing do in fact get way better).
  • Oglaf (EXTREMELY NSFW, by the way) is, well…I’m just gonna quote the ‘warning’ page directly: “This comic started out as an attempt to make pornography.  It degenerated into sex comedy pretty much immediately.”  Yeah, that about sums the whole thing up.  Written by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne, it’s fantasy-themed, frequently inappropriate, and always funny.  Make sure nobody’s watching over your shoulder, then start from the beginning here.
  • Lackadaisy is the tale of a group of charismatic bootleggers in prohibition-era St. Louis, told by the master of brilliant and hilarious facial expressions, Tracy J. Butler.  Oh, did I mention the bootleggers are anthropomorphic cats?  In addition to the main storyline (which you can read from the beginning here), her website features a number of vignettes, side stories and sketches that are often even more hilarious than the main comics.  This one about waffles is one of my particular favorites (don’t worry, it’s spoiler-free).
  • Cerintha is a fantasy webcomic set in an alternate universe shortly before the fall of Rome.  The art isn’t as impressive as many of the other comics on this list, but Cope (the author) keeps drawing me back with intricate plotlines and fun, interesting characters.  Be warned: although the comic is frequently funny, the overall tone of Cope’s stories (including his previous comic, Atavism) tends to be pretty fatalistic.  You can start reading Cerintha here.
  • Speaking of dark and humorous, The Perry Bible Fellowship has some of the darkest and humor-iest on the ‘net.  Nicholas Gurewitch masterfully juxtaposes cartoonish, childlike visuals with morbid, sexual, or just downright terrible stories.  You will laugh, and you will feel like a horrible person, and then you will click the ‘next’ button.  Go ahead, you monster.
  • Continuing to speak of dark and humorous, never forget Garfield Minus Garfield, the greatest existentialist-humor webcomic ever accidentally written.  I’ll let the comic’s description speak for itself: “Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle. It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.”  I have honestly never laughed harder than I have reading this comic.  Start here, then keep going until you can’t breathe.  Trust me, it’ll happen sooner or later.
  • Switching gears, Erstwhile is a comic that re-tells many of the lesser-known stories by the brothers Grimm.  Each story is adapted and illustrated by a different author–Gina Biggs, Louisa Roy, and Elle Skinner.  If you like fairy tales (especially the original versions), give them a look!  Their first story is The Farmer’s Clever Daughter.
  • Finally, there’s xkcd–a nerd classic.  If you haven’t heard of Randall Munroe’s comic yet, you should get out from under that rock you’ve been living beneath and go check it out.  Unlike most of the other comics on this list, there’s no real need to start from the beginning, since only a few of his storylines are continuous–it’s probably better to just hit the random button and go from there.  Enjoy!

How about you?  What are your favorite webcomics?  Let me know which ones I’ve missed in the comments!

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What Is Consciousness?

In one of my previous essays, I described Jeff Hawkins’ theory of intelligence. This essay relies heavily on that theory–if you’re not familiar with it, I recommend you read my other essay first.

The question of consciousness–of what it means to be “self-aware”–is one of the longest-standing unsolved problems in human history. It has showed up in practically every field from philosophy and theology to literature and the arts to multiple scientific disciplines including psychology, biology, programming, and even mathematics. Like the nature of sleep and dreams, it is one of those tantalizing problems that has resisted all solutions for millennia, despite being a fundamental part of our daily lives. Yet intelligence was also considered such a problem, and Hawkins’ theory tied a neat bow on it. Might the problem of consciousness be similarly solved? Continue reading

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My Sordid Confession

It’s probably no secret that I’m a nerd.  I like nerdy things, like dragons and comic books and Star Wars and mathematics.  I have nerdy friends.  I have pretty good nerd “cred” (go on, ask me to sing Still Alive.  Or pretty much anything by Freezepop. Or The Protomen.)  But as a nerd–and in particular a nerd who likes books–I have a secret, shameful confession to make. Continue reading


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Sexism Is Over

The problem with social justice is that it’s easy to see progress: simply look at where society is now, and compare it to where things were a hundred years ago, or three hundred, or a thousand, and say “Look how far we’ve come! Women are no longer married off like property, they’re not barred from participating in the government or military, and they’re not stoned to death for adultery! Surely sexism is over by now–right?” Continue reading

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Today I Am Victorious, Final

This week, the final part of my flash fiction series is up.  You can read it here, or you can start from the beginning here.  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Next week, it’s back to nonfiction with an essay called “Sexism Is Over.”  (Spoiler warning: it might actually be about how sexism is not over.)

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Today I Am Victorious, Again

This week, I present two more entries from my flash fiction series.  You can read it from the beginning here.

The fifth and final part should be up either next week or the week after.  If you have any thoughts or feedback, please leave a comment!

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Today I Am Victorious

This week, a little something different: the first two entries in a series of flash fiction vignettes.  You can find parts one and two on my deviantART account, with more parts to follow in the coming weeks.  Hope you like them!

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Mind Both Gaps

I was recently going back over some of Paul Graham’s essays, and I noticed something that bothered me while reading “Mind the Gap.” It’s an essay about how income disparities might actually be a sign of health, rather than a sign that something is wrong. That’s not the part that bothers me–it’s an issue I’ve written about myself and with which I mostly agree. No, what bothers me is this:

“A hundred years ago, the rich led a different kind of life from ordinary people. They lived in houses full of servants, wore elaborately uncomfortable clothes, and travelled about in carriages drawn by teams of horses which themselves required their own houses and servants. Now, thanks to technology, the rich live more like the average person. … Materially and socially, technology seems to be decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor, not increasing it.”

What he’s arguing here is that the gap between rich and poor may be quantitatively the same as in previous centuries (i.e., in terms of raw income), but qualitatively wealth makes less and less difference to the way people live. The rich today may still have much more money than the rest of us, he argues, but they are not leading fundamentally different lives anymore.

The problem with this argument is that it’s only half true. It seems clear that, as Graham argues, the gap between rich people and average people has been decreasing, especially in qualitative measures other than raw income. However, he never actually shows that the gap between rich and poor has substantially decreased. In fact, poverty has changed very little since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and in the most severe cases it has not changed at all in millennia.

In fact, in Graham’s own qualitative terms the gap between the poorest of the population and everyone else has only been increasing since the industrial revolution: the standard of life has been going up for most of us, but a beggar living on the streets today is facing conditions nearly identical in every practical respect to those faced by a beggar living in the streets in the 1800s–or, for that matter, the 800s.

Not only have the conditions of poverty not improved (in some ways, they’ve arguably gotten worse), but the demographics of poverty have not changed much either. Now, as ever, the poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly marginalized minorities: blacks, hispanics, homosexuals, the undereducated, people with mental or physical disabilities, religious and ideological outcasts, etc. Anyone who doesn’t fit the normalized ideal of (in our case) “straight white abled male” pays the price in lower wages, higher interest rates, less access to opportunities, poorer educations, and greater exposure to violence and substance abuse. Unless you’re willing to admit to the abhorrent belief that white males are genetically more competent than everyone else, you can’t argue that all these varied demographics bring poverty on themselves–their poverty has to be caused by something external. The obvious answer is that the cause of their poverty and the cause of their marginalization are one and the same: systemic social discrimination.

This is capitalism’s most glaring flaw. I consider myself an Objectivist in many ways, but the problem with Objectivism as portrayed by Ayn Rand is that it assumes the market is blind: let it do whatever it will, and the most competent people will win out. Unfortunately, the market is not blind. The market is made up of human beings, and human beings are biased. If I may quote PG once more…

“It’s absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty.”

…and there, as they say, is the rub. Poverty now is as absolutely bad as it has always been, and it is bad for almost exactly the same reasons. Until that stops, we have no hope of living in a true meritocracy.


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How Can We Make Learning Fun?

“How can we make learning fun?”

Does this question sound familiar? Policymakers, parents, teachers and politicians ask it constantly. How can we make learning engaging? How can we make lessons relevant to students? How can we get kids to pay attention and make an effort? It’s not like no one’s been trying to fix this problem–so why does it persist? Easy: because we’re trying to answer the wrong question. When we ask how to make learning fun, we’re begging the question: learning doesn’t need to be made fun, it already is! Instead of asking “how can we make learning fun,” what we should be asking is “why do we believe that learning can’t be its own reward?” In other words: how are we sabotaging the natural learning process, and what can we do to support it instead?

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Apartment Economics

I’ve lived in one apartment or another for several years now, and for the most part I like it.  I get a place to live without having to commit to a 30-year mortgage or a lot of extra space I won’t need, I’m responsible for furnishings and the owners are responsible for maintenance, and if I want to move I just have to start paying someone else for their space instead of selling and buying my own–overall, it seems like a pretty decent arrangement.  There is one convention of apartment ownership, however, that continues to bug me.  Why aren’t the owners expected to pay a share of the utilities?

Obviously, tenants should be held at least partially responsible.  The major deciding factor in utilities cost is usage, and that is something that is mostly within the tenant’s control.  Mostly, but not entirely.  Doesn’t it seem strange that under the conventional model, apartment owners have almost no incentive to invest in decent insulation, efficient appliances and fixtures, or other energy-saving features?  It takes a minimal investment to make sure that doors and windows are properly sealed and hot water pipes are insulated, and energy-efficient appliances generally pay for themselves within a couple of years.  Yet if the long-term cost for inefficient appliances and poor insulation is shuffled off onto the tenants, what motivation do the owners have to invest in these things?  This is particularly troubling to me because energy efficiency has a direct impact on global warming emissions.  If profit is the only incentive corporations have to reduce emissions and boost efficiency, shouldn’t we be making sure that their profits are at least related to their efficiency?

What do you think?

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