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“What’s your favorite thing (or things) about webcomics as a medium?” December 7, 2018

Posted by Erin Ptah in Meta.
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…is what umadoshi wanted to know about, so I’m gonna come at it from both sides.

As a reader: my favorite thing is that there’s such a low barrier to entry. I get to read comics by people who would never be accepted by publishers because the content is too niche (which used to include “too gay”, although fortunately that’s changing). Or because the creator doesn’t know the right people, and networking takes stamina/skills, which don’t automatically come with being a good artist.

Or even because the comic is genuinely Not That Great. Sometimes those are fun anyway! And having them online gives the artist the motivation to keep working, and then you can watch them get great in realtime.

The main tradeoff is that the flake-out rate is high, but you’re not immune from that in any medium. (“George R.R. Martin, please write and write faster…”)

And on balance it doesn’t get me down. Definitely not enough to stop me from checking out new strips. I’m just impressed at how many people are dedicated enough to keep them up at all for no money, or for “some money, but it sure doesn’t pay the rent.” (*cough*here is a Patreon*cough*)

As a creator: going back to this line I loved from the ComicLab podcast, “Cartooning has this wonderful ability to let you be a super-performative public isolationist.”

So, listen, sometimes I have your standard “being a famous public performer” daydreams. Like, a song will come up on shuffle and I’ll flash to the idea of me singing it on stage, got the perfect dance routine to go with, the crowd is Swept Up with Amazement and Awe and so on.

But the idea of doing anything like that in reality is horrifying. Crashes up against the problems that I’m not a good singer and don’t have any dance training and hate addressing crowds and get generally nervous about doing things live.

So I make comics — and people still follow along, get engaged, post theories and compliments and so on — but I get to sit behind it, so the art is what people are interacting with, and I never have to get directly involved unless I want to.

You don’t even need to talk to anyone to get started! Sure, there are collaborations and anthologies and application-based collectives, there are specific levels that you need to make connections to enter. But in general? Free webcomic-centric hosting platforms have existed for my entire Internet life. Fill out the automated signup form and you can just go.

(December talking meme.)


All these places I’ve been December 3, 2018

Posted by Erin Ptah in Personal.
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Nova wanted a post about the places I’ve lived! So here’s the executive summary. (Hopefully vagued-up enough to avoid identity theft.)

I was born in…


…where my parents lived for the next three years. I don’t remember any of it, but I do blame its influence for the fact that I really, really like cheese.

Then Dad got a job in…


Mom worked for a while too, but my understanding is that Dad’s job was the driving factor. He’s the one still working at the same place.

A couple of apartments, one of which I have the faintest memories of, then the house in the suburbs where my parents live to this day. Nothing too elaborate (if you remember the neighborhood from Desperate Housewives…yeah, all those houses are at least twice the size of ours), but nice and stable.

Lived there until…


Four years spent mostly in middle-of-nowhere rural MA. Interspersed with a semester abroad in the outskirts of Canterbury, New Zealand, which was great.

After graduation, a friend who was studying in Boston needed a housemate (shoutout to Katy), so I packed up all my stuff for good and moved to…


Spent the next eight years going through a string of apartments, and housemates, and low-paying temp jobs, in the Boston area. (In the middle of this I went to grad school, though you wouldn’t know it from my employment history.)

For the most part I deeply enjoyed it! Met awesome people, followed cool opportunities, felt generally comfortable in the culture.

But the rents kept rising, while my income kept…not. Then 2016 happened, when my vote (among three million others) didn’t matter because of where I lived. And, you know. That sucked.

I considered moving back to Wisconsin. It’s a swing state, there would be a nice feeling of coming-full-circle about it, and I would get to personally vote against Paul Ryan. But then came offers of support from family members, which were pretty hard to turn down. Which is why now I’m in…


As of this writing, still crashing at my aunt’s place. A planned short-term stay turned (by mutual agreement) into a medium-term stay. I’ve officially shifted into apartment-hunting mode, though! This post will be officially out-of-date by some time in January. (Barring any unforeseen complications. Knock wood.)

(December talking meme.)

The Good Place, the Boy George principle, and the fallacy of the Doctor Problem December 2, 2018

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So I’m rewatching The Good Place s2 with my aunt. Simultaneously enjoying The Good Place: The Podcast (which is great but spoileriffic, so don’t pair it with your first watch).

I’ve watched s1 about four times by now, because it’s the kind of show where it’s really good to vicariously enjoy someone else’s first watch. This is my first revisit of s2, though.

And I’ve gotta vent about the Trolley Problem.

Quick summary for anyone who’s missed it: the Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment. You’re driving a trolley, and the brakes fail. As it’s speeding down the track, you see five people on the track ahead of you. (They’re stuck. Maybe they’re tied down, Snidely Whiplash style?) There’s a switch coming up, so if you act quick, you can steer the trolley onto an alternate track — but there’s one person stuck on that track.

Is it morally better to let five people die through inaction, or to save the five by actively killing one person?

There’s a great episode of Mind Field on YouTube that makes people think they’re really in this situation (using an “experimental remote train-driving system” and non-live footage of people on tracks) and tests their results. With bonus meta-layer of how the experimenters avoided inflicting unethical levels of trauma on their unwitting subjects.

Everything is fine / Everyone is safe


So in the show, moral philosophy professor Chidi explains all of this. His students and fellow-torturees conclude that you gotta hit the switch. Chidi says, good, but there are other versions of this — like “Let’s say you’re a doctor, and you can save five patients. But you have to kill one healthy person and use his organs to do it.”

It’s not the same thing, and the others say so, but when Chidi asks why, they can’t articulate a reason. Later, when Chidi himself gets confronted with the Doctor Problem, he says “I won’t do it, because of the Hippocratic Oath.” But he, too, can’t articulate the moral foundation for why that works out.

Which is very in-character for Chidi. Any time something is declared an unshakeable moral absolute, he gets stuck on it. And none of the others have thought about the topic enough to go there.

So I’m gonna.

What makes the Trolley Problem work is, it’s so stripped-down. Short timeframe, very few variables, no room for complicating factors or alternate options.

There’s another alternate version which goes “you’re standing on the sidelines watching, and you can stop the train from running over 5 people down the line by pushing 1 person in front of it now.” Small change, but it still destroys the setup. Even if we accept the dicey premise (“this will definitely stop the train, it won’t just result in the train running over 6 people”), why can’t you push literally anything else in front of the train? “But the only thing in reach is this other person–” –yeah, and you.

There’s no third option in Trolley Problem Original Flavor. Much less a self-sacrifice option — which introduces a level of self-interest that unbalances the whole thing.

So when you get to the Doctor Problem, there’s not just a third option, there are billions of options. There’s none of the immediacy of “people who are stuck on the tracks in front of you right now.” Lots of people need organs. Even more people have organs. (Including you, the person considering the problem.) How do you fill the slots of the 5 and the 1?

There’s a few immutable conditions that narrow it down a little. Blood types have to be compatible, for instance. But that just means you’re down to 3 billion instead of 7 billion. Not real helpful.

About the 5 recipients: “Hit by a train in the next 30 seconds” versus “not hit by a train in the next 30 seconds” is extremely binary. Surgery…is not. Say you have a bad heart. Maybe you don’t get a new one, but you live another 30 years with medication and a strict diet and a careful lifestyle. Maybe you do get a new one, but the transplant itself is what kills you, through a bad rejection or an opportunistic infection or the basic risk of anesthesia.

…can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of medical dramas recently?

So you’d have to do a ton of evaluation, aimed at coming up with 5 people who have the best chance of getting the most substantial benefit out of this surgery.

About the 1 unwilling donor: you have to do a ton of evaluation there, too. Gotta be someone whose organs are all in good condition. Gotta be someone who’s healthy in other ways, so the recipients don’t just die of pneumonia the week after. And there are other practical concerns. What if the best candidate is someone who has to be flown in from another continent? Is it even worth testing people on other continents? If you test just your local city and find someone workable, is there a substantial benefit to testing for someone slightly-better in the next city over?

I could go on. There’s a lot.

But the real point here isn’t to actually consider these questions.

The real point is: if you give people the power to make this choice, they won’t bother answering all the questions.

What they will do is: designate people from “undesirable” groups as the donors, designate people from socially-powerful groups as the recipients, and, if asked to justify it, bring up only the details that happen to align with that particular choice.

History is littered with examples of — not organ-donation specifically, but this general flavor of human failing, being put into action. Infecting prisoners with malaria at Stateville Penitentiary, infecting disabled children of financially-stressed parents with hepatitis at Willowbrook State School, withholding treatment from poor black men with syphilis in the Tuskegee Institute study, verbally abusing orphan children in the Monster Study, exposing poor prisoners to massive radiation in the Washington and Oregon Reproductive Radiation Tests, deliberately infecting Guatemalan citizens including poor women and mental patients in the Guatemala syphilis experiment, giving poor pregnant women radioactive drinks at Vanderbilt University…to say nothing of the whole horror-shows of experiments done on prisoners — mostly political opponents and/or demonized minority ethnic groups — by the Nazis, Unit 731 in Japan, the Soviet Union, North Korea….

There would’ve been no shortage of “the people behind this are definitely in the Bad Place” references on this topic, is what I’m saying.

So this whole thing is a situation where “is this concept, considered on a pure objective level, ethical?” has a prerequisite, which is “can humans, in the real world, handle this objectively?”

And the answer is, good lord no.

Which is why nobody gets to designate who’ll be an organ donor except the donor. Full stop. (With recipients, there has to be some designating — so we have transplant lists and review boards and a whole bunch of safeguards, trying to keep things as objective as possible.)

The general principle of “seriously, on a practical level, can you trust real people to handle this?” has other applications, too.

Take the death penalty. Are there people that I think the world would be objectively better without — so much that it would be ethical to kill them? Honestly, yes. Do I think human society can be trusted to accurately identify those people? Good lord no.

(The Innocence Project has exonerated at least 20 people who were on death row, dozens more have been found innocent for other reasons, sometimes it’s only come to light after the person was killed — and, listen, I don’t have to tell you that in the US the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people who are black, poor, and/or mentally disabled, right? Right.)

…if I was the first person to articulate all this, I’d call it the Boy George principle, in honor of his immortal lyric “people are stupid.”

But it’s gotta have a proper term in Moral Philosophy Academia already, right? Comment and tell me if you know one.

Anyway, [the Boy George principle] is why the Doctor Problem has a different answer than the Trolley Problem.

Vent over. As they say on TGPTP: go do something good.

(December talking meme.)

It’s that time of year again… December 1, 2018

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…time to go through my Active Webcomic Reading List and clear out (mostly) everything that hasn’t updated since 2017.

If it petered out mid-storyline and there’s a fair chance it might update again someday, it gets punted to a different tracking service, so if any of them revive I’ll find out through checking one page every few months. If it actually came to a planned end (!!), it goes on my Completed Webcomics Reclist.

The depressing takeaway for this year is how many promising sapphic comics (for lack of a better term) have fallen by the wayside. Weird Sisters, Acethexis, Sundaze, Velox, Phoenix Flair…Sylvania isn’t even loading, although I’m hoping that’s a temporary server problem.

On the bright side, congratulations to Zebra Girl for coming to an actual proper finish after 18 years! (There’s an omnibus I’m gonna have to pick up.) And it’s so nice to see 95 Gallons reuploaded in readable form.

Aaaand with that, the list is down from 126 to 106! Not counting the handful I follow on other sites because the ComicRocket listings haven’t worked in ages.

…which sounds like a lot to manage, but most of the archives are either very slow, or very readable. Last week I tore through a year’s worth of Schlock Mercenary in an afternoon. (Role model, tbh.)

(December talking meme)