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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 25, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

What If? Scooting Printer, Modern Art

One of the masters of online computer-geek humor is Randall Munroe, the creator of the stick-figure comic strip xkcd. You can see a sample at http://xkcd.com/1419/

Recently Munroe came out with a lovely hardcover book entitled What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

The subtitle is exactly accurate. Unlike Neil F. Comins speculative science book, What If the Earth Had Two Moons?: And Nine Other Thought-Provoking Speculations on the Solar System, which puts forward some real possibilities about planetary configurations in other star systems, What If? starts with really silly questions (usually), many of which seem to have been thought up in order to stretch the boundary of absurdity.

Take the question, "What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?"

Munroe, in his answer, is quick to point out that "mole" isn't so much a unit of measure as a number, the way "kilobyte" is really just the number 1,024. However, "mole" is a really big number, "because it's used for counting numbers of molecules, which there are a lot of."

Then, in a footnote, Munroe adds: "'One mole' is close to the number of atoms in a gram of hydrogen. It's also, by chance, a decent ballpark guess for the number of grains of sand on Earth."

Get out your reading glasses, kids, because the footnotes in this book are in really tiny type, and you have to read them. Because some of the coolest information and some of the funniest lines are in those notes.

The "mole" question is just silly, of course -- but the delight of What If? is that Munroe takes such questions as seriously as he can. And because he writes with charm and wit, it's a pleasure to read even the most technical explanations.

Like the humor in xkcd, the wit in What If? is thoughtful as well as delightful -- but rarely likely to make you laugh out loud or read quotations to the people around you (think Ken Jennings, not Woody Allen).

But aren't you intrigued to know the answer to "What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?"

Munroe magically assembles everybody in Rhode Island. They jump. Result: noticeable noise of feet hitting the ground. Footprints. Nothing else.

But now the Earth's whole population is in Rhode Island. So Munroe goes on to imagine how everybody is going to get home. What began as a silly question (born, I suppose, of the "jump in an elevator" question) becomes an even sillier problem in logistics -- which Munroe handles with cleverness and aplomb.

In the end, you can't help but decide that if everybody is ever summoned to Rhode Island for any purpose, you should find an excuse to stay home.

Some of the answers are quite brief: "What if you strapped C4 to a boomerang? Could this be an effective weapon, or would it be as stupid as it sounds?"

Munroe doesn't bother to point out that strapping anything to a boomerang changes the aerodynamics, so it ceases to be a boomerang and now becomes a "stick."

Instead, he replies with a pertinent question: "Aerodynamics aside, I'm curious what tactical advantage you're expecting to gain by having the high explosive fly back at you if it misses the target."

Before he takes on a series of lightning questions, Munroe has a mini-essay that begins: "Before we go any further, I want to emphasize something: I am not an authority on lightning safety. I am a guy who draws pictures on the Internet. I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I don't have your best interests in mind."

I think that's a very helpful warning to readers. He goes on to inform us of a website that has real lightning-safety information. But then he goes on with some excellent ideas about how to predict where lightning will strike within an area of about half a football field.

"If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?" The answer is sort of yes, but Munroe takes the question seriously enough to explain why it ain't ever gonna happen.

He takes the "glass half empty" idea to extremes -- what if, by "empty," we meant "vacuum"?

He points out why aliens are not listening to our broadcasts on other planets, and why, with cable and such, we are now beaming way less radiation out into space than we used to.

"What if I jumped out of an airplane with a couple of tanks of helium and one huge, un-inflated balloon? Then, while falling, I release the helium and fill the balloon. How long of a fall would I need in order for the balloon to slow me enough that I could land safely?"

Come on, that's a cool question. And Munroe does all the research and math to explain why it's vaguely possible, but really not worth trying. After all, a guy already did the experiment of tying helium balloons to a lawn chair and flying across Los Angeles back in 1982, reaching a couple of miles in altitude, and then landing by popping some of the balloons with a pellet gun.

So we know that helium balloons can lift people. The real issue is the sheer awkwardness of handling a heavy helium tank and a balloon while in freefall.

There are also a lot of questions Munroe includes, but does not even try to answer. It's just amusing to know that somebody thought of the question and submitted it to him. For instance:

"If you saved a whole life's worth of kissing and used all that suction power on one single kiss, how much suction force would that single kiss have?"

"If a Venus fly trap could eat a person, about how long would it take for the human to be fully de-juiced and absorbed?"

When somebody asks a frivolous question about what would happen if a person lost all his DNA at the same time, Munroe points out that there are mushrooms that have that very effect: They don't remove the DNA, but they block all DNA from working.

The result was to make me take very seriously the warning never to eat mushrooms I find in the woods. Especially because there's no antidote.

"If two immortal people were placed on opposite sides of an uninhabited Earthlike planet, how long would it take them to find each other? 100,000 years? 1,000,000 years? 100,000,000,000 years?"

This is actually a fascinating problem, and while the answer depends on a lot of variables, there is an answer, and it's cooler and smarter than you think. So if you and a friend are ever dropped at separate locations on an uninhabited island with no roads or paths, if you've read What If? you'll know how to find each other fairly quickly.

Beyond that unlikely scenario, it's hard to imagine many of these answers having even the tiniest use beyond amusing the reader. But thought experiments are actually a good way to entertain yourself. Not only will it help stave off mental degeneration as you age, it is also the way that Einstein came up with all his most important theories.

That's right -- not by covering chalkboards with equations, but by imagining really bizarre scenarios involving trains traveling at or near lightspeed, and then leaving other people to work out the math.

And even if it isn't useful, it's cool to know that even though lightning contains a lot of raw energy, a lightning strike delivers to the ground about one-millionth of the energy the sun delivers to the same area every day.

Knowing that, I now regard sunlight as a long, slow, continuous lightning strike hitting half the planet all the time.

So the book is packed with facts. It's also funny. At $24.00 in hardcover ($11.99 for Kindle), I think it's worth the price. It would also make a great gift for a certain kind of person (i.e., literate and imaginative).


So there's somebody on Twitter posting as if he were Shakespeare, commenting on current events. Really clever, though it helps in getting the jokes if you're reasonably familiar with Shakespeare. Because @Shakespeare does not explain the gags. https://twitter.com/Shakespeare

Here are some samples:

"Macbeth is voting Yes for Scottish independence. Don't know if that helps."

"Attention: The NFL has suspended Petruchio indefinitely."

"The NFL said they would have suspended Petruchio earlier, but no one showed them Act Three until yesterday."

And this on Joan Rivers: "Some men must love Milady, and some Joan. But I love a shrew who was never tamed."

@Shakespeare is very bad at poetry, though. Skip anything that looks like verse, because it will only make you sad.

And here, changing roles, are @Shakespeare's answer to questions asked in various Shakespeare plays: "1. That is not the face that launched those ships. 2. The snows of yesteryear are currently clouds. 3. To be, dummy."


A fellow named Will Reid came to believe that his children never heard a word he said, so he decided to speak to them via the media they did pay attention to. The result is a brief instructional video on how to change the toilet paper roll.

It's done completely deadpan, which is why it totally works. (Forgive the annoying loud commercial on the site where I first saw it.)

Of course, the real problem is not that his children don't know how to change a toilet paper roll. The problem is that they have not matured enough to take action that will benefit, not them, but the next person who will use the jakes. So this video is not really instructional; it really functions as gentle, clever shaming.

The only drawback for most American parents who might want to direct their children to this video is that most of us have spring-loaded center posts on our toilet paper dispensers, and since these require a little bit of mechanical ability, the process really is too hard for some children to master without practice. Too bad, eh?


The problem with trying to bring a printer with you when you travel is the size. It has to be as wide as the paper, and it must contain the machinery to feed the paper past the print head. Put that in your luggage along with a ream of paper, and ... forget it. Just make sure you're staying at a hotel that offers business services.

Until now. Students at the Jerusalem College of Technology began to think outside the ream, and realized that you don't actually have to feed the paper through the printer to get it lined up properly with the print head.

What they came up with is Zuta, a travel printer that scoots around on top of the paper, printing your document. It rolls on its own wheels and, on its own, detects the corner of the paper and begins to print in straight rows, slithering back and forth across the paper like a busy rodent.

Of course, you have to have the paper on a firm, flat surface that's bigger than the paper. And, um, you do need to provide paper. But it's a great idea, and I hope they hurry up and start manufacturing it and selling it here, because I want one.


When somebody linked me to a group of American servicemen doing a lip-synched music video, I thought it was fun -- but found it a bit weird that all the moves were so brazenly effeminate. Only at the end did I learn that they were doing a shot-for-shot parody of a video performed by the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders, to a song by Carly Rae Jepson.

No, sorry, not a parody -- a "military tribute." But it's exuberant, fun, and funny; they're blowing off steam on their own time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_zhaji9eos

And here's a side-by-side comparison; the form factor is somewhat distorted, but you can see how spot-on the soldiers are. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOffsOHOCX0

There may be some who don't appreciate the "sexy moves" that the soldier parody. But this is American culture -- part of what they're sworn to defend. And it's no more questionable than the pinups of World War II.

The only embarrassing thing about it is how often the soldiers do the moves better than the cheerleaders did them.


As photography began to provide better and truer images in the 1800s, it put pressure on artists to justify the images they created. The science of optics inspired some artists to experiment ways of using art to help people see in new ways -- perhaps finding images that were truer or more meaningful than mere duplication of reality.

So the lush romantic compositions of academy-trained artists -- the extravagant fabrics of Leighton, the pearlescent skintones of Bouguereau, the fantastic imagination of the pre-Raphaelites -- began to be challenged, and eventually supplanted, by the Impressionists and others.

Soon Renoir, Monet, Seurat, and others in this new wave became every bit as beloved as their predecessors, and so new rebels had to try even harder to find ways to be clever and new. Van Gogh and Gauguin, for instance, might seem to forgo any attempt at either realism or beauty; but then along came Picasso and others, making Van Gogh and Gauguin seem downright sentimental.

A lot of people -- including many artists -- came to believe that "good" art was art that attacked everything that went before; that mere "beauty" was passe, and powerful artists had to provoke a firestorm of criticism.

They were confusing cause and effect. They thought that as long as they could come up with a semi-plausible "theory" to explain the weird things they were doing, or as long as people got angry when they saw their art, they were doing something important and "cutting-edge" ... even if it was ugly, required no talent for composition, and, in many cases, ignored any attempt at depicting anything from the real world.

So now we have "artists" who have no interest in art as it used to be practiced. Why go to all the trouble of training yourself to have superb skills, when you can make a reputation just by doing something that certain people will find horribly offensive.

Of course, they don't ever offend the group that gives grant money to "artists." They only offend religious people (except Muslims!) and others who, for fear of being thought intolerant, can't possibly retaliate.

In other words, to be an artist today, you need only to be a bully or spin a good story about why the ugly things you do are actually surprisingly clever, insightful, or revolutionary.

Isn't that the standard diatribe?

Of course it is -- because it's mostly true. And it's charming to listen to Robert Florczak, an artist and illustrator who lectures for Prager University, explain it in mild but explicit tones on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNI07egoefc

The problem is that Florczak, besides pointing out the things that are actually wrong with modern art, also points out as wrong certain things that I think aren't all that wrong.

That's because he speaks of the good old art as being, not just beautiful, but also "inspired" and "uplifting."

I have a hard time taking seriously anybody who thinks that art is required to be "inspired" and "uplifting." For instance, what exactly is uplifting about King Lear or Oedipus Rex? Both involve putting somebody's eyes out, along with other examples of ugly, appalling human behavior. But they are also both considered -- by me and many others -- to be great art.

And there are lots of perfectly miserable samples of various arts that are uplifting to somebody. But they just make me sad or discouraged about the poor judgment of some artists and some audiences for that art.

There are the obvious and oft-repeated tricks of the self-titled "artist of light," for instance. If he gives you pleasure, that's fine. But neither the subject matter nor the artistry inspire or uplift me. And some of the pieces I find moving and memorable might strike others as quite dreadful.

So for me, it's pathetic when "artists" attempt to compensate for their lack of skill or talent by being "outrageous" -- but I don't fault them for being "uninspired," or for failing to "uplift." That's the job of sermons and foundation garments. I expect art to do a good job of showing me something about the world as seen through someone else's eyes. And as long as they don't ban the kind of art I enjoy, I'll return the favor and refrain from banning the swill that they like.

In other words, I disagreed with some of Flarczak's premises, but I still thought the five-minute lecture or sermonette had some valid points and was worth pointing out.

I was curious, though, because I had never heard of Prager University. In fact, the only time I had heard the name "Prager" was in reference to Dennis Prager's radio talk show. Prager would certainly be classed as "conservative talk radio," but compared to some flamers and on-airheads, he's a sober, moderate, clearspoken fellow.

Then I checked out Prager University and found out that it is not an accredited university; nor does it attempt to be. Instead, it specializes in providing, for free, five-minute lectures that make a single, clear point.

They tend to have a conservative bent, but not an extremist one (though to the extreme leftists of the media, who think they and their friends are "moderate," anybody who expresses a contrary view might as well be Attila the Hun).

I can't vouch for any lectures but Florczak's, because I couldn't get any of the others to produce sound over the internet connection I have while traveling. But I'll be checking back to see what they have to say, because a free on-line educational service is actually a good idea -- and a reasonable countermeasure to the relentless lack of intellectual diversity in the American university today.

So google Prager University and see if they have anything to offer that interests you. I think that for readers of the Rhino Times, the answer may well be yes.

As for Florczak himself, when you go to his website, you find that his art, while realistic, has a slightly cartoony look and feel, and there are several portraits that remind me of "fan art" -- paintings of various movie stars, for instance. It is no surprise that the art he produces would immediately discredit him with art-world snobs, who would dismiss him as "just an illustrator, and not a very good one."

But that's how they avoid having to take into account some of the best artists working today. And even if they're right, illustration is also art -- the art of illustration -- and there is no sound reason why the best practitioners of illustration should be regarded as inferior to the artists who believe and obey their art school professors and compete with each other in ugliness, outrageousness, and inaccessibility to ordinary people.

Shakespeare was also dismissed as worthless by many, precisely because the common people loved his plays. It took centuries for the English language to change enough that his plays became "difficult" and therefore something that elitists thought they could control. (They're wrong -- Shakespeare, like all great artists, is untamable.)

Whether you agree with Florczak's ideas, they are not altered by what you might think of his own artwork; consider what he has to say on its merits. And in the meantime, see if Prager University is worth five minutes of your attention from time to time.

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