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Randall Munroe

18 Projects Inspired by xkcd

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Randall Munroe

Who is the most influential person in Internet history? That argument could go on for years. But you could make the case that one guy with a pencil has the strange power to make things happen without a company, without a title, and without even asking. Randall Munroe has influence he never asked for. His creation xkcd is "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." The accompanying blog, which Munroe calls a "blag," is where he posts everything outside of the thrice-weekly comic. He's published several books, too, but it's the comic that seems to have the biggest impact.


When Munroe posted this comic, Mike McHenry was inspired to install a ball pit in his home. Then Munroe was inspired to make it happen in his own home (shown at the top). He later enlarged it. Then put one in their office, although it didn't last long.


When Munroe posted this comic, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing was just an average-looking guy you might not recognize on the street.

A couple of months later, he showed up at ETech 2007 looking like this. Since then, the red cape and goggles have become Doctorow's signature in various comics and animations.


When Munroe posted this comic, it wasn't long before Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman was given a gift of a katana by two xkcd fans. He didn't know what to do with it.

Maybe he should have taken lessons. A few months later, he was mock-attacked by a band of ninjas as he spoke to the debate club at Yale University.


When Munroe posted the "Map of the Internet" comic, it inspired Hourann Bosci to create an application to find the location of any IP address on the map.


In 2007, Munroe posted a map of online communities, and updated it in 2010. Click here to enlarge.

JaySimons via DeviantART

Last year, Martin Vargic produced a map that used the data from Munroe’s online communities in the style of National Geographic maps. The print is for sale.


When Munroe posted this comic, a new "sport" was born.

Andrew, Chris, Ryan, and Chance recreated the stunt in real life and sent Munroe a photo. More people sent in pictures, which end up in the Chesscoaster gallery. See more pictures here.

7. RULE 34

When Munroe posted a comic about Rule 34, he thought ahead and registered the domain Pictures were, of course, submitted. Wetriffs is no longer, but the mildly NSFW contents can be viewed via the Wayback Machine. Rule 34 leads to Rule 35, which is “If it doesn't exist on the internet, it must be created.”


When Munroe posted this comic, Dustin Spicuzza was inspired to create software that posted a love note at the startup, with a ominous "Missing operating system" appended.

He also posted warnings about trying this at home. It could lead to panic, anxiety, and domestic discord.


When Munroe posted this comic, Raffael Mancini was inspired to develop the butterfly easter egg for Emacs. Only real programmers will understand it.


When Munroe posted this comic (be warned: its title is NSFW), it caused an explosion of dissenting opinions. To appease the grapefruit lovers, Munroe took a poll that plots everyone's opinions on fruit. A response comic was then posted to reflect the disagreement with the original graph.


Remember the Discovery Channel song that we all sang in 2008? Munroe made his own version, featuring recurring elements from xkcd. Noam Raby made an animated version, and then there was a live-action version of the comic, and then another featuring some folks you might recognize. (I’m the one singing the first boom-de-yada.) 

12. WOOD

On July 7, 2008, Munroe posted this comic. The Wikipedia entry for "wood" immediately sprouted more pop cultural references for wood. It was the highest traffic that particular entry would ever see. The entry has since been edited, with the "Pop Cultural References" section removed.


When Munroe posted this comic, YouTube was paying attention and made it come true. Sadly, the "audio preview" comment feature only lasted about a year.


When Munroe posted this comic, shown only in part here, Vadim Ogievetsky was inspired to create a generator called PlotWeaver to plot narratives for other movies.


Munroe posted about Tetris Heaven, then followed up with Hell. It was only a few hours before someone had a working version of the game online. It is every bit as frustrating as you'd think.


When Munroe published the strip "Packages" in 2009, the punch line was that the kind of things a ‘bot buys on Ebay could be used to profile the buyer as if he consciously chose those items. But the idea for an automatic buyer appealed to New Zealand developer Paul Hunkin, who created a program to do just that. His Python script scanned the Australian auction site TradeMe for cheap items with free shipping. The bot was given a dollar a day, and could make purchases out of its balance. He even told us about his purchases on Twitter for about a year. Hunkin was not the only one who tried it.

In 2014, a service called Bobcat in a Box launched, inspired by the comic. You can sign up for $30 a month, or any amount above that, and then receive surprise packages bought by their automated system. You can even set keywords on your account to limit your preferences.


The comic "Malamanteau" appeared in 2010. Munroe didn’t coin the word malamanteau, but he popularized it. A malamanteau is "a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism." Some of those things are explained here. So, of course, some Wikipedia editors immediately added a page for malamanteau. It was taken down and re-added several times before the URL for malamanteau was redirected to the page on xkcd, but not before the word was analyzed at The Boston Globe and The Economist. The kerfluffle spawned a blog called Malamanteau Mania! that lasted for a couple of years. Malamanteau survives at Urban Dictionary.


In November of 2012, Munroe posted the comic "Up Goer Five," which explained the parts of a Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words in the English language. Writing in that manner is not easy. Munroe had help from his computer, and he eventually posted a text editor that lets you know what words are not in the top thousand. Even “thousand” isn’t in the top thousand. I put the first paragraph of this article into the editor and found about half the words are verboten. An earlier text editor based on the idea was even harsher in its word rejection.

The "Up Goer Five" comic inspired Alaska Robotics to rework the song “Space Oddity” using only those common words. The result was the song “Space Weird Thing.” MinutePhysics made a science video explaining space travel using the same technique. In 2015, Munroe published a book titled Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words that takes on quite a few subjects in this manner.

No doubt there are other projects inspired by the many xkcd comics. If you have any doubts about Munroe's influence, bear in mind that there have been several sites dedicated to explaining xkcd. One is still active, and there's an app that can link each comic to the explainer. One defunct site that explained the comic was itself parodied by another site, devoted to explaining the explainer. And another site explains how bad it is. Of course, there's an xkcd subreddit. There’s even a forum where other artists take xkcd comics and alter them to make them less funny. (That's influence.) Don't forget to check the hovertext at each xkcd comic for an additional punch line.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]