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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.

1. THE BALL PIT

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 Last.fm put one in their office, although it didn't last long.

2. CORY'S COSTUME


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.

3. NINJA ATTACK

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.

4. INTERNET MAP

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.

5. ONLINE COMMUNITIES


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.

6. CHESSCOASTER


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 wetriffs.com. 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.”

8. OPERATING SYSTEM NOT FOUND


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.

9. BUTTERFLIES


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

10. TASTY AND DIFFICULT FRUIT


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.

11. BOOM-DE-YADA


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.

13. YOUTUBE COMMENTS


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.

14. GRAPHING MOVIE PLOTS


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.

15. TETRIS


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.

16. PACKAGES


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.

17. MALAMANTEAU


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.

18. TOP TEN HUNDRED WORDS


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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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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Courtesy of Highlights for Children
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7 Engaging Facts About Goofus and Gallant
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Courtesy of Highlights for Children

For well over 60 years, the preadolescent readers of Highlights for Children magazine have gotten regular lessons in morality from Goofus and Gallant, a pair of kids of indeterminate age and relation who offer sharp contrasts in behavior. Gallant is prone to exhibiting perfect manners; Goofus is selfish, thoughtless, and has even been seen torturing small animals. (Honest: He has stoned birds and once subjected a frog to some disturbing cruelty.)

The two-panel strip has become so ubiquitous that warring ideologies are often described as “Goofus and Gallant” types. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s more to Gallant than being a goody two-shoes or whether Goofus is flirting with juvenile delinquency, check out our round-up of the pair’s storied history.

1. THEY USED TO BE ELVES.

Goofus and Gallant

Goofus and Gallant were the creation of Garry Cleveland Myers, a child psychologist and popular syndicated parental advice columnist. Myers debuted the strip, then known as the The G-Twins, in Children’s Activities magazine in 1938. While the twosome were already displaying their radically different approaches to life, Myers depicted them as fanciful creatures with pointed ears and curly-toed shoes. No one is quite sure why Myers opted for the fairy tale aesthetic, although one theory is that he wanted to depict bad behavior rather than bad children.

After Myers and wife Caroline started Highlights for six- to 12-year-old readers in 1946, they were eventually able to acquire the rights to the strip. Goofus and Gallant debuted in their magazine in 1948; by 1952, they had morphed into two regular kids. Their parents lost the elf ears, too.

2. THEY MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON REAL KIDS.

Highlights turned into a family enterprise, with the Myers’s children and grandchildren having a hand in its publication. In 1995, Kent Brown Jr., the Myers’s grandson, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the inspiration for Goofus and that his cousin, Garry Myers III, was the model for Gallant. Myers III denied the accusation. “Kent gets great glee out of claiming to be Goofus," he said. Brown later stated that all of Myers's 13 grandchildren helped inform the characters.

3. ONE ARTIST DREW THE STRIP FOR 32 YEARS.

Goofus and Gallant

Once Myers secured the rights to the two characters for Highlights, he enlisted illustrator Marion Hull Hammel to draw their adventures (and misadventures), taking them from the elfin creatures of the early days to the human boys of the 1950s and beyond. Hammel wound up drawing it for 32 years; Sidney Quinn took over when she retired and worked on it through 1995. Current artist Leslie Harrington has been on the strip since 2006. 

4. GALLANT GETS HATE MAIL.

While the recurring theme of Goofus and Gallant is to exercise the Golden Rule, not all juvenile readers are on board with Gallant’s impeccable manners. "I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," Rich Wallace, the magazine's then-coordinating editor, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.'" Other readers have expressed similar disdain for Gallant, observing that they identify more with Goofus.

5. GOOFUS IS NOT A SOCIOPATH.

Goofus and Gallant

In the absence of any in-panel clinical diagnosis of Goofus’s reckless behavior—including but not limited to playing with fire, being unkind to peers, and vandalizing school books—we’re left with the editorial directives of Highlights. In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune, magazine publicist Tom White admitted that Goofus is a “surly, uncooperative, ill-mannered child” but that "he is not a sociopath.” Good to know!

6. THEY’VE BEEN FEATURED IN ROUGHLY A BILLION ISSUES.

Discounting the two years they were absent from Highlights from 1946 to 1948, the antics of Goofus and Gallant have appeared without fail in every subsequent issue. In 2006, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary by shipping its one billionth copy. The magazine went from selling 20,000 copies of its first issue to averaging 2.6 million readers a month in the 1990s.

7. ONE EDITOR’S THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Goofus and Gallant

When Goofus and Gallant began their broadly-drawn moral plays in the 1950s, they were depicted as identical twins. Later on, editors for Highlights indicated the two were brothers, but not twins. By 1995, they were simply two unrelated boys. But according to former coordinating editor Rich Wallace, the two might actually be part of a Fight Club-style twist. “I’ve theorized they’re two sides of the same kid,” he said.

We were so awed by this possibility that we asked Highlights editor Judy Burke if it held any water. "We show the boys with different parents in the panels and they look slightly different from each other," she says. More recently, the two have seemed to become aware of the other's existence. "In April 2016, we had them breaking through their respective art panels and pranking each other for April Fools’ Day, which they couldn’t have done if they were the same child."

That doesn't mean that readers can't have an existential crisis of their own. "Each time we run Goofus and Gallant, we include the line, 'There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all,'" Burke says. "When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.  We also include a few 'Goofus and Gallant Moments' from kids, where they tell us about times when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant. These two aspects of the feature support the theory that both characters reside within the same individual, and it’s up to that person to choose how to behave."

All images courtesy of Highlights for Children and used with permission.

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