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Randall "XKCD" Munroe is doing a What If? book!

XKCD creator Randall Munroe has announced that Houghton Mifflin will collect his amazing What If? science columns into a book called What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, to be published in September 2014. It will include in-depth answers to questions that he hasn't yet answered online, as well as expanded and updated versions of his previous columns.

What If? is one of my Internet must-reads, and I look forward to each new installment, and always read it with delight.

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Now: XKCD helps you visualize the time of day all over the world


In Now, the latest XKCD cartoon, Randall Munroe provides a handy, continuously updated way to visualize the current time all over the world. I happen to know that Munroe is an inveterate long-distance driver who likes to pass the hours on the road by calling friends; I imagine that a wheel like this would be handy for helping him figure out which continent he should be searching for in his address-book in order to find conversational partners at any hour of day.

XKCD: Now

XKCD's "Frequency" - using blinking GIFs to visualize the relative frequency of the momentous and trivial

In Frequency, the latest XKCD cartoon, Randall Munroe has assembled a grid of animated GIFs representing various events in the universe, each keyed to blink in the frequency in which they occur in reality. As with the best of Munroe's work, it's a mix of the trenchant and the silly, and the juxtapositions are smart and provocative. There's real genius in putting "50,000 plastic bottles are produced" and "50,000 plastic bottles are recycled" next to each other, the former blinking much more often than the latter -- but the best part is "A Sagittarius named Amelia drinks a soda," just above them, mixing up the alarming and the humorous.

The other juxtapositions are just as delicious -- one birth/one death; China builds a car/Japan builds a car/Germany builds a car/US builds a car/someone else builds a car; someone buys "To Kill a Mockingbird"/someone's cat kills a mockingbird -- and so on. This being XKCD, you can be sure that Munroe has an absurdly well-thought-through process for establishing and documenting his numbers, too.

The tool-tip notes that he wanted to include pitch-drops in the chart, but "it turns out the gif format has some issues with decade-long loops." Frequency (via IO9)

20th Century headlines as modern linkbait

XKCD's Headlines presents a timeline of the 20th century with the major milestones summarized in A/B tested, linkbaity, listicle headlines.

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No robot will ever...

Today's XKCD strip, Reassuring, wittily illustrates Kevin Kelly's Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, which start with "1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do" and heads toward "5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do."

Be sure you go to the original for the tooltip punchline.

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What would it cost to continuously print out every edit to Wikipedia?


In a recent What If...?, XKCD's Randall Munroe tackles the important question: "If you had a printed version of the whole of (say, the English) Wikipedia, how many printers would you need in order to keep up with the changes made to the live version?" Turns out the answer is SIX, but it would cost $500,000 a month for the ink, and you'd need 300m^3 a month to store the paper.

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Cetacean needed: Wikipedia whale diagram needs line-art


The missing elements in the diagram on the Wikipedia page for List of cetaceans is missing some line-art of various whales and such. Where the art is missing, the box simply bears the legend "cetacean needed." (ObRef XKCD)

Nice work editor of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cetaceans … - missing diagrams labeled 'cetacean needed' @doctorow pic.twitter.com/B18yrKrJvI

Making sense of "Beanish," XKCD's synthetic language


As was noted, the amazing, 3,000+ installment XKCD story Time featured a synthetic language (with its own script) created by a linguist for the story. Deciphering Beanish is a blog where the language is being slowly, surely made legible.

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Astounding backstory behind XKCD's "Time"


A week ago, Randall Munroe finished "Time", XKCD's long, running, slow-updating, 3,000+ frame comic telling the story of two people who discover an impending superflood that would destroy their society. Randall's explained in detail what was going on there, from the geology of the thing (it's set millennia in the future, amid a civilization denied the ability to jumpstart itself by the paucity of remaining fossil fuels, and the flood is modelled on a real event that sealed off the Mediterranean Sea five million years ago) to the fictional language the upland culture speaks (designed by a linguist, and still mysterious).

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Randall Munroe finishes "Time," the 3,099-panel XKCD serial


Randall Munroe has finally finished Time, his 3,000+ frame slow-motion animation that began life as wordless, enigmatic single-panel XKCD installment. Since then, the panel has been slowly, slowly updating itself, running out its course over several months. Geekwagon has collected the whole series in an easy-to-control window, and the story, taken as a whole, is a beautiful and odd existentialist parable touching on the discovery of geographic knowledge; cultural first contacts; environmental disaster, friendship and ingenuity. (Thanks, @dexitroboper!)

Humble Ebook Bundle reveals second week bonus books: XKCD, Gaiman/McKean, Holly Black & Machine of Death!


The Humble Ebook Bundle -- a two-week, pay-what-you-like, DRM-free ebook sale -- has just revealed the four bonus books in week two: XKCD Volume 0 by Randall Munrow; Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean; Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black and the bestselling Machine of Death anthology. To get these bonus titles, you have to pay more than the present average for the books (if you bought already and paid more than the average at the time, these books are already yours to download, otherwise, you can top up your payment to get them). Remember, you can also buy the bundle as a gift-code to give to a friend!

(Reminder: the Bundle also includes Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn; Wil Wheaton's Just a Geek; Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor; Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and my Little Brother)

Physics of murder, superball style

Indispensable wisdom from the XKCDverse: "After falling from seven stories, the mass of bouncy balls would be moving at about 20 meters per second.... If you wanted to be sure of killing someone, you'd need 3,000,000 of them—enough to fill a large room—to guarantee that the target would either be crushed to death by the impact or buried too deep to dig themselves out." Cory 1

XKCD: moral panics about modern times from times gone by


Today's XKCD, "The Pace of Modern Life," is a lovely collection of 19th century and early 20th century quotations about the hurried pace of modern life, the atomisation and trivialisation of knowledge thanks to modern media, the disobedience of children (again, thanks to modern media) (this topic was a favorite of Socrates's!) and other hand-wringing editorial subjects frequently chosen by modern critics of the Internet age. A great companion piece to Tom Standage's wonderful catalog of moral panics through the ages.

The Pace of Modern Life

"Citation needed"'s Wikipedia entry

Regrettably, the Wikipedia entry for "Citation needed" ("a common editorial remark on Wikipedia, which has become used to refer to Wikipedia in wider popular culture") doesn't include any actual assertions tagged with [citation needed].

On July 4, 2007, the webcomic xkcd published a comic which depicted a protestor holding up a "citation needed" sign during a political speech.[7]

In late 2010, banners with the template appeared at the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,[8] and in February 2011, at a more serious demonstration in Berlin against German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who had been embroiled in a scandal after it was discovered he had plagiarised portions of his doctoral thesis.[9]

The New York Times has commented on the propensity of some "stickler editors" for adding the template to unattributed facts,[10] and has used the phrase in an online headline.[11]

Citation needed (via JWZ)

How much time should you spend automating a routine task?


Today's XKCD really tickles me. "Is It Worth the Time?" is a handy chart showing how much time you can invest in automating any recurring task in order to save time, on balance, over five years. I am an inveterate automator of recurring task, always looking for ways to shave seconds.

On the other hand, I think I'd halve the figures Randy gives in this chart, because many of the routine tasks you automate will change in some significant way in less than five years and require further work. Also, the chart fails to account for the losses in innovation and serendipity you suffer when you over-optimize a routine task so that you effectively can only do it in one highly constrained way.

Finally, there's the opportunity cost of clearing a relatively scarce large block of time to spend on automation, which may be a better bargain than giving the task more time overall, where that time comes out of a pool of more abundant small snips of time.

In other words, a five day block of time given to automating a task might cost more (that is, might crowd out more productive work) than ten half-day blocks of time or 40 one-hour blocks.

Still: this is crack for me.

Is It Worth the Time?