Tag Archives: what if review

Review: what if? – “Phone Keypad”

Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013

Roll: 1,4. Result: Review, Article.

Every Tuesday Randall Munroe of xkcd.com writes an article in his “What If?” series, answering hypothetical questions readers submit about anything from dinosaurs to light-speed baseballs, most of which involve space, probability, or really large measurements. He has the creativity to make even mundane questions worthy of a highly investigative exploration, the wherewithal to actually answer hard questions accurately (sometimes moreso than necessary), and patience to really dig up all the relevant facts. All in all, it’s a highly rewarding series of articles well worth the time to read them all; you might (definitely) learn how much hair a blue whale would need to grow in order to be supported if hanging by it. Today I’ll review the one that he published… today:

Phone Keypad (http://what-if.xkcd.com/75/)

by Randall Munroe

This particular “what if” answers the question in question by the second sentence, as some of the “what ifs” do, before extrapolating on the idea at the heart of the question, namely: “What are some things that you might have to type which would be annoying to type?”

His methods for finding answers to this question are not explicitly divulged in the article, and are not intended to be its focus, but he does explain his basic strategy and offer a link to some code. It’s impressive, and I’m not about to try to grapple with its specifics. I try not to concern myself with how exactly he comes up with all of his answers; I’m just here for the results. And in this “what if,” the results are the focus.

What might otherwise be a boring list of some near-nonsensical phrase/sentences Munroe makes into a series of single panel comics. They might not be funny on their own, but knowing they only exist because they can be typed with one hand, for example, makes them so worthwhile. He even relates a few of them to each other, providing a couple narratives.

If you’re used to xkcd, you know that the alt-text you get from mousing over the comic is half the joke, and in that way these do not disappoint. Every image (in all of the “what ifs”) has alt-text, which kind of helps it feel more personal. It’s like Munroe is reading the comic with you, and then nudges you with his elbow and says a quick aside.

It’s nice to see that, in this article, he answered the question and then just ran with it, maybe as an excuse to draw some weird comics. But it still expands your knowledge and maybe reveals some new possibilities. It is very fitting of a “what if” series to surprise its readers with each installment, with never any two being the same, all while stretching our imaginations with wild conjecture and cool science.

Yeah, maybe I reviewed the whole series, but I love it, and this was an excellent moment from it.