What If I Read a Book?

By Shamus Posted Friday Sep 5, 2014

Filed under: Random 47 comments

A friend got me this as a gift.

Randal Munroe (the XKCD webcomic guy) has been doing this for a while now, and it is – no hyperbole – the highlight of my week. People email him ridiculous science questions and then he answers them. If you’re a science-lightweight like me, then this is great entertainment. If you have a science background, then I imagine these are a rich source of nitpick fodder for people looking to play “stump the alleged ‘expert’.” And I KNOW you folks like that game. I mean, that makes sense. Being more correct than everyone else is kind of embedded in the entire premise of science, and sometimes you just can’t help yourselves.

I was worried the book would just be a re-print of his existing questions, but there’s a lot of new material. Doing a Fermi estimation, I suppose about half-ish of the book looks newThat’s not how Fermi estimation works. I know this because I’d already read the entry where he explained Fermi estimation..

It’s really good. The only downside is that you can’t hover over images for mouseover textSometimes the images have captions instead. You know, like they were made by SAVAGES. Also, you can’t click on footnotesLike this one. to get the detailCan these things still be called footnotes when they don’t reside at the foot of the page?, but must manually move your eyeballs to the bottom of the pageLIKE A SAVAGE..



[1] That’s not how Fermi estimation works. I know this because I’d already read the entry where he explained Fermi estimation.

[2] Sometimes the images have captions instead. You know, like they were made by SAVAGES.

[3] Like this one.

[4] Can these things still be called footnotes when they don’t reside at the foot of the page?


From The Archives:

47 thoughts on “What If I Read a Book?

  1. Fabrimuch says:

    What kind of barvarian culture would create a booj in which you can’t click on footnotes? I am apalled.

    1. Krlnkir says:

      The same kind that would create a fire drill designed to cause maximum confusion[1].

      [1]-The Bavarian Fire Drill was not actually created by Bavarians.

    2. MrGuy says:

      Actually, it’s called a bookbook. They’re Sweedish.

      1. Wolf says:

        Personally I will be waiting for bookbook pro. I heard that bookbook still has some issues when you try to connect it with firefire .

      2. Ivan says:

        Well obviously you’re not Sweedish or you would know that it’s pronounced “Bork-Bork”.

        1. postinternetsyndrome says:

          I’m Swedish (note spelling) and I love being more right than others, so I’ll inform you that it’s “bokbok”. It’s pronounced something along the lines of “boukbouk”.

          1. Bryan says:

            Dunno about more “right”, but, um… I’ll just leave that right there.

  2. Dev Null says:

    “Being more correct than everyone else is kind of embedded in the entire premise of science”

    …and the entire purpose of the internet.

    1. Groboclown says:

      Does this mean we need to be posting the obligatory XKCD links?

      1. Mephane says:

        Obligatorily, the posting of obligatory xkcd links is obligatory.

    2. I wonder if the book is merely entertaining or actually informative. While the current What If online are probably more or less correct, there have been some things that go well beyond nitpicking issues originally published*. And these errors are silently corrected so they look, when browsing the archive, like they were never wrong to start with. I’d much rather someone writing this sort of stuff provided notes when they had to correct an error on the page (which sat there teaching something totally bunk for days or weeks before being changed). It means reading a new What If soon after it goes up is more a case of “interesting if true” and entertainment reading than informative. But maybe that’s just a good mindset to have when reading anything.

      * Best example is probably publishing something saying the total value of discovered oil was greater than all human life, a great bit of dark humour but unfortunately wrong by several orders of magnitude. This is now revised on the main page as if this incorrect assertion was never there.

  3. Nick Pitino says:

    Oh, it’s out now?

    Quick, to the order page!

    Hold tight, Bat-Turn!

  4. Nidokoenig says:

    Did anyone else get the impression Shamus was going to ask if he and his sexy voice should record an audiobook and/or am I just sleep-derived and nutty?

  5. Paul Spooner says:

    For someone who is such an outspoken opponent of IP law, it’s interesting to see Randall taking a step into a typically IP closed medium. Is “What If” copyrighted? If not, is he going to post the text online at some point? Making it available in print-only seems like obstruction of knowledge. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, but it does seem just a little weird.

    1. Bubble181 says:

      At the very least, the onus of putting it on line (in a searchable, downloadable, indexed, whatever version) certainly isn’t on the creator. Only supplying your products or content in a specific medium isn’t obstruction of knowledge, certainly given that it IS available to order on line. Otherwise, it’s just as much obsctruction to only release it in English, to not release it in Braille, to not release any specific content on paper, etc.

      I’m all in favor of freedom of knowledge and a free exchange of ideas, but putting the responsibility of making sure EVERYONE CAN ACCESS IT EASILY EVERYWHERE on the author seems off, and just adds in other layers of difficulty for publishing/creating content.
      It’s available as an e-book, a book, and other forms.

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        It’s available only on closed platforms. Hardback, Kindle, audio-book (For $70″½ are you kidding me?), that’s it. I can’t get the full searchable raw text anywhere.

        Certainly he doesn’t HAVE to put it on line! I’m not saying he’s obligated to do anything. But RM has a long history of being in the “NO DRM” camp (if he wasn’t being totally sarcastic all those times. Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part?) so the sudden “I’m making some closed content” thing struck me as odd.

        1. Bubble181 says:

          Ah, I thought it was available as an open form of e-book as well. If it’s only Kindle, that *is* a shame and a bit of a surprise from his side. Sorry.

        2. evileeyore says:

          There is a tremendous difference between “No DRM” and “Information Should Be Free”.

          1. Paul Spooner says:

            Is there? I don’t see it. Please enlighten me.

            1. Bryan says:

              It’s not very easy to be in the “information should be free” camp and still like DRM.

              But it’s eminently possible to be in the “holy crap DRM sucks” camp and not agree that all information should be free (…by which I mean, that everything should be public domain). I’m in that group. DRM is abominable, but I still want the right to control the copying of stuff that I create. (If only to say that others can’t further restrict the rights I’m giving out, GPL-style.)

            2. syal says:

              If intellectual property is evil, so is land ownership. Both are established on the “I was here first” principle, and are detrimental to the happiness of the majority.

              If land ownership is evil, so is all property ownership, because all property starts on a piece of land somewhere, and is formed from materials taken from land. Having no ownership of the materials you are using, you have no right to claim ownership of the finished product.

              So now we’ve abolished commerce entirely. How far do we want to take this idea?

              Whereas DRM is basically someone saying “You can’t have a pear until you eat this thistle.” It’s an arbitrary combination some jackass came up with and said “This is the way it’s gonna be now”. It’s entirely possible to not like the arbitrary crap without hating the idea that a guy can own a pear.

              1. Chris Robertson says:

                Physical property is a limited resource. You and I can not both fully own a bit of dirt. Intellectual property is not a finite resource. You and I can both fully own memories or knowledge of an event or object. If we both (using our own physical properties of paper and ink or other medium) record that intellectual property in some physical form, neither has taken anything from the other.

                I will not (in this post) take a stand on the mortality of either land ownership or DRM, but will hold fast to the claim that there are very great differences between IP claims and land ownership.

              2. Zak McKracken says:

                That first bit is some extremely slippery slope, and I wouldn’t follow that argument.

                The second bit, I agree.

            3. evileeyore says:

              The “No DRM” camp isn’t gnashing it’s teeth over copyright control, it’s wailing and flailing fists over crippleware and other such software control programs being attached to games and other programs that the consumer purchases and wishes to use.

              You seem to be confusing DRM with copyright, the two are not synonymous.

        3. HeroOfHyla says:

          $70 for the audio book? Is that some exchange rate issue maybe? I’m seeing around $25 here.

      2. Andrew_C says:

        It’s already online. It’s a bunch of stuff collected from his blog. more specifically you can read it all at http://what-if.xkcd.com/

    2. Kalil says:

      On the flip side, I imagine it’ll be available in libraries. You know – that place where the free information movement resided before the intertubes.

    3. MichaelG says:

      I was surprised he went with a traditional publisher, who went over the $9.99 price tag. I guess he wanted printed books in book stores. Otherwise, why not self-publish?

      I’m kind of annoyed at having to pay 11.99 for a book I’ve read most of. It would be different if most of the price went to the author — I’ve read XKCD for years for free after all. But why pay anything to “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt”?

      1. Ciennas says:

        Well, without being too terribly blase here….

        They’re the ones making the physical copies for the book, and that requires a lot of tools and supplies and workers to manage both of those things.

        It’s also possible that he’s trying to get his book into the general educational books pool (Houghton Mifflin was the publisher of most of my school’s books back when I was growing up.) Imagine a generation of kids who were raised on the questions contained within the what-if book.

        On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the publisher is trying to pick up a little extra scratch on the side. I am curious as to why that should ever be a problem. Selling the book at cost would be a foolish move- after all, it would be very difficult to convert sales into food if you made a net profit of zilch.

        I’m sure Randall would be happy to provide a disclosure of his earnings from the book if you were nice enough to ask him.

    4. 4th Dimension says:

      I thought he only collected the articles still available on his site and put them into a solid paper copy form?
      If so what is the problem? Info is still freely available at http://what-if.xkcd.com/

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        Addressed by Paragraph 3 in the OP by Shamus.

      2. Ciennas says:

        Sort of. There are articles he never published to the site in the book proper. Which means the one I submitted might be in there. Whoo!

        1. MichaelG says:

          I just finished the book. I think I recognized nearly all of them from the website. Oh well.

          He didn’t answer my question: “If the nerd trait disappeared from the human race — if no one ever felt like doing a Linux installation again — how long would civilization survive?”

  6. steves says:

    You know how XKCD/WhatIf has those neat little[1] inline footnote things that sort of look like the ones here?

    The ones that disappear when you click *anywhere* else on the page outside of the note text, not requiring you to click the tiny number again. And don’t have a silly ‘?’ when you hover over them, or redundant title text duplicating the number.

    And even XKCD ones don’t do the right thing and get rid of overlapping note text from one you opened earlier. For bonus points, you could even make sure the most recently clicked one has a higher z-index…it’s the little details!

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      It’s all about the non-overlapping displays. Microsoft followed the wrong leader when implementing windows. We should all be thinking in cells instead.

    2. “The ones that disappear when you click *anywhere* else on the page outside of the note text, not requiring you to click the tiny number again.”
      You should be able to close it by clicking on the note text/box itself too.

      “And don't have a silly “˜?' when you hover over them”
      That is CSS cursor styling and is easily changed.

      “redundant title text duplicating the number”
      That can easily be fixed by not using a empty title=”” in the span for the javascript code for the footnotes.

  7. MrValdez says:

    > If you have a science background, then I imagine these are a rich source of nitpick fodder for people looking to play “stump the alleged “˜expert'.”

    If you replace science with video games, isn’t that how most of Diecast’s mailbag goes?

  8. HiEv says:

    If you like people seriously answering ridiculous questions, then you might also like “The Straight Dope“. Cecil Adams has been answering questions like that in the newspaper since 1973, and a lot of them can be found on the website. There are a bunch of “The Straight Dope” books as well if you prefer dead tree versions.


    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Very interesting! I read a few of CA’s articles and found them enjoyable, but they have a different tone than RM’s. It was hard to pin down, but I found a summary at the end of his FAQ:
      “Don’t be smart. That’s Cecil’s job.”

      While I could not find an appropriately poetic quotation from XKCD, here’s one I made up which I hope highlights the contrast:
      “Let’s be smart together, because intelligence is fun!”

      1. HiEv says:

        Well, I’m pretty sure by “smart” Cecil Adams (or whomever wrote that FAQ) meant “clever” and “witty”, not “intelligent”, since he receives a lot of questions that attempt to be funny, but fail at it pretty miserably (often redundantly so, since many make the same joke over and over, such as the “How do you pronounce FAQ?” FAQ question that your quote comes from).

  9. Garrettttt says:

    I prefer to call Randal Munroe Randal “xkcd” Munroe ever since the guy who made Overcompensating comic called him that.

  10. Confanity says:

    Manually move your eyeballs? Would that go something like this?

  11. Steve Online says:

    I would like to pose a rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question in this post title, namely, a quote from What If #103.

    “As is often the case with these questions, everyone would die.”

  12. Mersadeon says:

    I ordered it right when he announced it, so that I would forget about it – I wanted it to arrive as a suprise from/for myself. But now the internet is talking about it, so I didn’t really think that through.

    (Also, it hasn’t arrived yet.)

  13. tmtvl says:

    “What if I Read a Book?”
    Then you’ll know. And knowing is half the battle.

  14. Sven says:

    Just a quick info for you: Randall Munroe was the guest at The Colbert Report on September 3rd. You can still find the full episode online. :)

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