Complexity, Columbo, and Conspiracies

The overlap between QAnon and Silicon Valley. How does Ryan North keep writing Dinosaur Comics every week?

Sometimes, I remember Dinosaur Comics exists and visit the website to see if it’s still going. It always is. There’s usually a new comic that day.

Dinosaur Comics, written by Ryan North, is a six-panel comic featuring three dinosaurs talking to each other. The twist is that each strip features the same six panels, with only the dialogue changed. The pictures have the oversaturated, thin outlines of nineties clipart. In one panel, a T-Rex is about to stamp on a log hut with a car next to it. In another, his arms wave excitedly. As of writing, Dinosaur Comics is up to issue 3,694.

The comic is unexpectedly funny. The dialogue often sparkles. Like other early internet webcomics, it has passed into internet lore. But most impressively it has endured, updating and reinventing itself (as far as it can with the same six panels), while maintaining its humor. It’s a webcomic version of The Simpsons.

Part of its success is that North is funny. He wrote the book B^F, a line by line close reading of the Back to the Future novelization, which is quite possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read. But almost more impressive is the consistency of Dinosaur Comics. North has written dialogue in those six empty panels three and a half thousand times over a seventeen-year period. I’ve joked before about chess grandmasters thinking of themselves as bishops when they move diagonally, but after this long, North’s thoughts must structure themselves into that six-panel structure. It must have changed his brain. I wonder if something similar happens to those who consistently produce creative work for Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter

They say creativity thrives in constraints - limericks, rhyming couplets, sonnets. 280 characters. Certainly, there is something joyous watching someone take a known structure and do something new with it. The familiar butts up against the unfamiliar, like the old Save the Cat joke: films should be the same but different. Yet I remain amazed that North can sit down, several times each week, and write a comic in such a constrained way.

It must be rewarding to commit so fully to one additive project, shaping each idea to fit into a constrained structure. My brain doesn’t work this way. I am the opposite of that imagined chess grandmaster. If I constrain myself to six parts, I think only of ideas in three parts. It’s as if my mind rebels against regularity. Rather than seeing ideas and fitting them into a structure, I become hyper-aware of all the things that can’t fit into that structure.

Even as this newsletter has crystallized into a structure (an intro section, a summary of recent articles, three links to other things), I start thinking of alternative ideas. Maybe, I think, there should be a comic strip in here. Or it should be told as a series of FAQs. You can expect, one day, to receive a copy of this email and for the format to be completely different. But until that day…

There are some new stories from me on Medium. In Human Parts, a story about the English Language and my desire to “update” it to fix its inconsistencies.

Take “ough.” How we pronounce it depends on what is around it: through, thought, tough, thorough, plough. If you want to make a “sh” sound you write “sh” (as in “shoe”), but some words have other ideas: sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne. There are over 200 ways of representing the 44 sounds in letters. Can we really say this system is fit for purpose? […] Sometimes phrases sound the same as other phrases, such as in the Two Ronnies sketch on four candles/fork handles. And there are other examples: “pullet surprise”/“Pulitzer prize.” When it comes to that stuff, that’s tough.

And from a couple of weeks ago, a piece about my love of libraries, prompted by the realization I have a recurring dream about library fines:

A friend of mine is ecstatic about this dream. It is an anxiety dream, she tells me, with altogether a little too much glee. During our waking hours, she is more anxious than me, and so it is a relief for her to discover that underneath I am a bundle of nerves and neuroses like everyone else. A calm swan on the surface, but below, legs paddling like mad, grasping for library books.


This is getting circular, but in the New Yorker, Anna Wiener has a fun article about Substack.

A Substack newsletter is both a product and a portfolio: a way to make money, but also a venue for displaying personality, intelligence, and taste. Read enough of them and certain patterns begin to emerge. Newsletters in the business and tech categories tend to adopt para-LinkedIn tics. They are often studded with Twitter screenshots and lists of links. Single-sentence paragraphs appear frequently, as do uplifting rhetorical devices.[…] Just as there is “podcast voice”—that inquisitive, staccato bedtime-story cadence—there is Substack tone, a semi-professional quality suited to mass e-mail.

Well, way to go at making me self-conscious.

If you’re reading this, then you’ve used Substack at least once. Part of me finds it weird that Substack gets so much attention. It is, in many ways, relatively simple: MailChimp with Stripe integration. The interface does nothing that you couldn’t do in Gmail with the BCC field. But then branding is everything.

I find paying for newsletters strange as well. Both as a customer, and as a provider. Substack’s minimum cost is high, meaning that for the same price as a magazine subscription you can only really sign up for one or two newsletters. It’s viable only for the biggest names, those with fans fanatical enough. To really change the way we find and consume content, Substack would surely need to offer a bundled service, not dissimilar from Medium, delivered by email. For a monthly fee, you could pick from a range of email newsletters.

But perhaps I am confused by what SubStack is. Rather than being a competitor to journalistic media as it claims, to Medium, Vice, and The Verge, perhaps it is more similar to Patreon and OnlyFans. Kickstarter or Unbound: a brokerage service that connects fans directly to writers, funding them through a quasi charitable donation. We are recreating the system of patronage for writers from the 17th century.

Substack calls itself “the antidote to social media”, but as Wiener writes:

Reggie James, the founder of Eternal, a social network in development, and the author of “Product Lost,” a newsletter that takes an artistic, humanist approach to technology (free), was skeptical of the idea that Substack was an antidote to social media; about half his readers come through social networks. As long as writers were beholden to the logic of social-media algorithms, he said, Substack was still “playing the game of the platforms.”

In the January edition of Harper’s, this delightful essay by Hari Kunzru caught my attention linking Q-Anon to complexity.

Simplicity is minimal and elegant. A simple object has no ornament. Everything that is not essential has been refined away. Simplicity is, in most of the ways we commonly talk about it, an aesthetic criterion, something to do with Platonic forms or a white canvas. But it turns up at the foundations of scientific thinking too. Mathematicians look for simple proofs; physicists try to describe the universe in terms of fundamental forces. Yet a perfume of aesthetics clings to even these rigorous endeavors. In physics, wrote Murray Gell-Mann, “a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.”

I’d forgotten how much I loved Columbo until I read Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s ode to it in the Toast a few years ago:

Columbo says things like “Watch my hand, it’s full of grease. This is my dinner. Would you like a piece of chicken?” to suspects. He is deliberate. He moves at the pace of justice. Unflagging, unwearying, unrelenting; he is the Anton Chigurh of goodness. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards Columbo.

Compared to endless reboots of Sherlock Holmes and “gritty” police procedurals, Columbo isn’t just charming, it’s refreshing. The disheveled lieutenant essentially irritates suspects into defeat, patiently catching them out on tiny, seemingly inconsequetial details. It’s like catching Al Capone on his tax returns. Columbo doesn’t sit them at a metal table and shine a light in their eyes. He asks if they can help him figure out why someone would go swimming without a towel. If any character in a TV show is secretly God it is Columbo. He has no first name, no background, no airs, and no graces. He is the modest Holy Grail cup from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He arrives at the scene, simultaneously baffled and all-knowing, before gently guiding the murderer through the process of admitting and coming to terms with their actions. The perpetrators are always rich and powerful. They act as if they are entitled to murder. Possibly, like Lost, the whole show is set in purgatory.

I recently had the pleasure of recommending the show to a friend. After showing him one episode he immediately went and bought the boxset. Some nights, he told me, he watched two or three episodes. It’s rare for a recommendation to go that well.

Even though every episode is the same, it is the only detective show I know that feels different. It survives on charm, wit, and inventiveness, rather than drama. It is profoundly gentle. Fred Rogers as a detective. Writing episodes must have been like putting together a crossword - a clear structure, requiring a careful arrangement of pieces. Screenwriting as watchmaking. (We’re back to working within constraints again.)

I was reminded of Columbo by this beautiful love letter to the show by Joe Dator in the New Yorker.

Until next time,