Q&A: XKCD Comic Strip Creator Randall Munroe on His New Book and Drawing Humor From STEM’s Absurdist Extremes

Cartoonist and best-selling author Randall Munroe offers up absurd but well-sourced scientific advice

6 min read
The cover of Randall Munroe's book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.
Book cover: Riverhead Books

The guy who draws those comic strips with stick figures is actually a very capable and talented artist. Physics equations are the surefire road to absurdist humor. It only takes the 1,000 most common words to sell a million books. These are some of the contradictions one grows accustomed to in Randall Munroe’s world.

Munroe, who is the author of two best-selling books What If? and Thing Explainer and has gained Internet celebrity for his incisive XKCD comic strip, has a new book out this month called How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. In it, he offers hard-won advice in such essential matters as “How to build a lava moat” and “How to catch a drone with sports equipment.” (In the latter chapter, he enlists tennis star Serena Williams to knock a quadcopter out of the air using her powerhouse serves. It only took three tries.)

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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