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kottke.org posts about Randall Munroe

What witnessing a total eclipse is like

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2017

In an essay from 1982 about her seeing a total solar eclipse in Washington (recently republished in this collection), Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard puts into words what I only attempted to express in my eclipse experience.

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.

I heard lots of disappointment with the eclipse among friends and on social media. It was neat — look, there’s a chunk out of the Sun — but they thought it would be darker or that the air would get colder. But none of that stuff really happens unless you’re really close to totality…and then it goes completely dark and your brain turns inside out. Twitter user @hwoodscotty said:

Probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Totality is so much different than even 99%. 10/10 Would recommend.

And @omanreagan:

Standing on a mountaintop for totality was crossing into another dimension, suddenly finding ourselves on another world. Amazing. Sparkling ring, sun fire ghostly streaming, darkest circle. I understand now why people chase the eclipse. Totality is unlike anything. Entire landscape shifted, valleys, hills, mountains painted in nightcolour and cold. Sparkling planets came out in a midnight sky.

But back to Dillard’s piece…this part, about the shadow rushing towards them, sounds amazing:

I have said that I heard screams. (I have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to expected total eclipses.) People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed — 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight — you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

Next time, and there will definitely be a next time, I’m hoping to get up high somewhere so I can see the shadow and more of the 360-degree sunset. BRB, pricing plane tickets to Argentina

Update: Before the 2017 eclipse, Vox talked to some eclipse chasers about what it’s like to witness a total solar eclipse.

Joss Fong, who produced the video, shared the following on Twitter:

now that i’ve recovered from the drive, i can say that a lot of what these eclipse chasers told me makes sense now. agree completely that it’s something you have to see for yourself. what was different for me though is …. i got pretty sad. there’s a fine line between awe and grief. maybe in a different year it would have gone the other way, but tbh every exceptionally beautiful sunset makes me a tiny bit sad too. but this was sunset sadness times a thousand. absolutely punched by the impermanence. i hope i see it again and i hope you can see it too.

Update: From XKCD:

XKCD eclipse

I watched from a beautiful nature reserve in central Missouri, and it was — without exaggeration — the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

This incredible State Word Map explains everything about America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2017

State Word Map

No, not that one. Or this one. Or any of these. This one.

State Word Map

A timeline of the Earth’s average temperature

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2016

XKCD Climate Change

From XKCD, a typically fine illustration of climate change since the last ice age ~20,000 years ago.

When people say “the climate has changed before”, these are the kinds of changes they’re talking about.

And then in the alt text on the image:

[After setting your car on fire] Listen, your car’s temperature has changed before.

The chart is a perfect use of scale to illustrate a point about what the data actually shows. Tufte would be proud.

Update: Tufte is proud. (via @pixelcult)

Grow your own garden on XKCD

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2016

Xkcd Garden

For April Fools’ Day, Randall Munroe made an interactive widget where you can grow your own garden. Here’s mine so far. Others’ gardens are further along, with people and octopuses showing up. As with real gardens, the keyword is “patience”.

Update: In experimenting with his garden, @dennis_e_a found:

One color of light on a spot of ground changes what grows. Red: Desert, Blue: Ocean, Yellow: Park-ish

I have modified my lighting accordingly, but my flora and fauna have yet to follow suit. Perhaps I need to prune a bit?

Text editor restricted to 1000 most common words

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2016

Simple Language Editor

Inspired by Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, Morten Just built a simple text editor for OS X that restricts your writing to the 1000 most common English words. You can also use Munroe’s Simple Writer on the web.

The University of XKCD

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2016

Randall Munroe’s best-selling Thing Explainer, in which he explains scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words, will be incorporated into the upcoming editions of some of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school science textbooks.

Mr. Munroe, 31, said the project appealed to him. He recalled as a child a foldout diagram showing different animals at the starting line of a race and then sprinting/flying/crawling to show the different speeds of different species. “For some reason, I fixated on that illustration,” he said. “It stuck with me my entire life.”

Mr. Munroe said he hoped his drawings would break up the monotony and pace of a typical textbook. “I’m hoping it will be, ‘Oh, here’s a kind of fun and unexpected component,’” he said.

I think Bill Gates would approve.

Map of the United Repositioned States

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2016

US Scrambled Map

Randall Munroe has made a map of the United States with all of the states in different places but still retaining the same general shape. Particularly clever is the Michigan/Maryland combo to recreate the Bay Area.

The space doctor’s big idea

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2015

Randall Munroe has a new book coming out called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words in which he uses the 1000 most common English words to explain interesting mostly scientific stuff. In a preview of the book, Munroe has a piece in the New Yorker explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity using the same constraint.

The problem was light. A few dozen years before the space doctor’s time, someone explained with numbers how waves of light and radio move through space. Everyone checked those numbers every way they could, and they seemed to be right. But there was trouble. The numbers said that the wave moved through space a certain distance every second. (The distance is about seven times around Earth.) They didn’t say what was sitting still. They just said a certain distance every second.

It took people a while to realize what a huge problem this was. The numbers said that everyone will see light going that same distance every second, but what happens if you go really fast in the same direction as the light? If someone drove next to a light wave in a really fast car, wouldn’t they see the light going past them slowly? The numbers said no-they would see the light going past them just as fast as if they were standing still.

It’s a fun read, but as Bill Gates observed in his review of Thing Explainer, sometimes the limited vocabulary gets in the way of true understanding:1

If I have a criticism of Thing Explainer, it’s that the clever concept sometimes gets in the way of clarity. Occasionally I found myself wishing that Munroe had allowed himself a few more terms — “Mars” instead of “red world,” or “helium” instead of “funny voice air.”

See also Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less. You might prefer this explanation instead, in the form of a video by high school senior Ryan Chester:

This video recently won Chester a $250,000 Breakthrough Prize college scholarship.2 Nice work!

  1. Other quibble: I would have called Einstein the time doctor. [cue Tardis noise]

  2. Which reminds me of when I was a high school senior and I showed a clip of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to my physics class for a report on time travel and wormholes. It’s been all downhill for me since then.

Thing Explainer

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2015

Thing Explainer

Randall Munroe of xkcd is coming out with a new book called Thing Explainer.

Inspired by his popular comic, “Up Goer Five,” THING EXPLAINER is a series of brilliantly — and simply — annotated blueprints that explain everything from ballpoint pens to the solar system using line drawings and only the thousand most common English words.

So awesome. I love everything about this. Here’s a look at part of one of the blueprints, the Curiosity rover, aka Space Car for the Red World:

Thing Explainer Drawing

Where to stand in solar system

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2014

xkcd solid Solar System

From XKCD, an illustration of the solar system’s solid surfaces stitched together. Best viewed large (if only to find the “all human skin” label). Randall Munroe is just the best, isn’t he?

What if What If? was a book?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2014

What If Randall Munroe

Fantastic…Randall Munroe is turning his What If? web series into a book. Munroe explains:

As I’ve sifted through the letters submitted to What If every week, I’ve occasionally set aside particularly neat questions that I wanted to spend a little more time on. This book features my answers to those questions, along with revised and updated versions of some of my favorite articles from the site. (I’m also including my personal list of the weirdest questions people have submitted.)

Update: What If? the book is now out. Phil Plait has a rave review.

Look, I answer questions for a living, too, and Randall is really, really good at this. He finds weird little scientific ways to answer the questions, but it’s his extrapolations that kill me. I laughed a lot reading this book. Even better: I learned stuff reading this book. And you will too.

The frequencies of humanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2014

Related to my post on the frequency of humanity is this post on XKCD on the various frequencies of events, from human births to dog bites to stolen bicycles.

Facebook of the Dead

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2013

For his latest What If? column, Randall Munroe tackles the question “When, if ever, will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than of living ones?”

Based on the site’s growth rate, and the age breakdown of their users over time, there are probably 10 to 20 million people who created Facebook profiles who have since died.

That’s an incredible number; most tech startups would kill (well, not really but maybe…) for that many alive users.

The Saturn V rocket, simplified

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2013

Randall Munroe of XKCD drew the Saturn V rocket (aka Up Goer Five) annotated using only the 1000 most common English words.

Up Goer Five

See also Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less.

Changing the color of the Moon with laser pointers

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2012

Hey, if Randall keeps writing them, I’m gonna keep posting links to them…today’s XKCD What If is “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

Unfortunately, the laser energy flow would turn the atmosphere to plasma, instantly igniting the Earth’s surface and killing us all.

I didn’t expect the world to be so big

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2012

Xkcd Big World

Today’s XKCD must have taken Randall several years to draw…if you click and drag, it goes on forever. Or not quite forever, but Dan Catt did some figuring and:

Ok, so the XKCD map printed at 300dpi is around 46 foot / 14 meters wide, half that at magazine 600dpi quality.

Here’s a better Google Maps-like way to explore the entire world.

Radiation dose chart

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2011

With the assistance of a nuclear reactor operator, Randall Munroe came up with this handy radiation dose infographic. Doses recorded near the Fukushima plant compare to those from a single mammogram or dental x-ray. A note on how to use this chart:

If you’re basing radiation safety procedures on an internet PNG image and things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself.

(via df)

There and back again

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2009

A wonderful character interaction map of the Lord of the Rings trilogy drawn by Randall Munroe. Here’s just a little part of it:

xkcd LOTR