821: Five-Minute Comics: Part 3

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Five-Minute Comics: Part 3
Resulting in The Little Rock 9x + C.
Title text: Resulting in The Little Rock 9x + C.


This is the third of three "five-minute comics" Randall posted during a week in November 2010. The introduction to the comic explains everything you need to know about the circumstances behind it.

Randall obviously made more than three of these five minutes comics, and one of them was published later, for a short period of time by a mistake, but an android xkcd browser picked it up while it was on-line and saved it. Since then it has been added to explain xkcd. So here is a complete list of all four comics in the entire Five-minute comics series:

Here is a list with explanations for each of the small comics:

  1. Pearl Harbor is a US Navy base that was attacked in 1941 by Japanese airplanes, which prompted the US to join World War II. The attacks were made on December 7, 1941, not November 7. Thus, Randall is correct in depicting a Navy base going about its usual business. This may also be a joke on present-day levels of awareness of the event; as it fades out of living memory, people might indeed confuse the date with November (or October) 7, despite it being "a date which will live in infamy".
  2. Breastfeeding in public is a touchy subject in parts of the world. In the US, some consider it to be inconsiderate to others who would prefer not to see such a display. Of course, women breastfeeding in public are generally feeding their infants, not other adults. The situation presented in the comic is an absurd exaggeration of the debate.
  3. "s" is the command in sed to perform a pattern search-and-replace; the syntax has also been adopted by other text-processing utilities, including Perl (a favorite subject of xkcd), and has entered into the geek lexicon as something that could appear in general conversation. The specific command "s/I think that/I saw a study once that said/g" means "Find all occurrences of the phrase 'I think that' and replace it with the phrase 'I saw a study once that said'." This will, indeed, improve the persuasiveness of an article, as the existence of scientific evidence will make people more likely to believe what's said, while most people won't even think to actually look up the study in question.
  4. Arson is the crime of intentionally setting fire to a structure. Billy Joel will no doubt claim he didn't start the fire. And it turned out that they believed him. This was mentioned in the title text of 1794: Fire, which displays another similarly folded newspaper front page, with only the headline readable. The picture shown the fire Billy was arrested for, but he was only detained briefly. The song is also mentioned in 1775: Things You Learn.
  5. Coca-Cola is a fizzy cola-flavored soft drink, commonly abbreviated as "coke." Pop Rocks are a candy that contain tiny bubbles of gas, so that as the sugary candy dissolves on your tongue, it creates a popping sensation. For a long time, it was claimed that drinking the two together would cause one's stomach to explode; this was finally put to rest as some people (the Mythbusters in particular) started actually trying it, and discovered that it's merely painful, not lethal. Here, it's combined with elements of other common scary urban legends (phones ringing and creepy laughter) to form something bizarre.
  6. After Brown v. Board of Education ruled that schools could not segregate based on race, nine African American students from Little Rock, Arkansas enrolled in the previously-segregated Little Rock Central High School. The school board could not officially deny them attendance, but members of the community (and, after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus intervened, the Arkansas National Guard) formed a blockade to physically prevent them from entering the school building. The governor claimed this was within his power even after Brown v. Board, because the students were enrolled without issue, they were just physically blocked from entering the school building. After determining that the right to enroll in a school does, implicitly, include the right to actually attend classes there, president Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to accompany the students and force the National Guard to stand down, thus integrating the school. This incident became known as the Little Rock Nine.
    However, integration also has a meaning in mathematics. This is indicated in the comic with the soldiers lifting up a giant integral sign to place beside the school, in order to (mathematically) integrate it. Normally, an integral only makes sense on functions; however, since this is the Little Rock Nine, if we take the integral of the constant function f(x) = 9, we do, in fact, get 9x + C, as stated in the title text. The posture of the three soldiers with the integral sign echoes the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph.
  7. Cell phones with advanced computing capabilities, typically at least requiring fully-featured Internet browsing, multimedia capabilities, and the ability to run software applications, are called "smartphones." Most cell phones also have a "vibrate" function that allows someone in a public situation to receive calls without alerting others; the phone will discreetly vibrate rather than activate a ringtone, thus privately notifying the owner that a call is incoming. A semi-common problem with this feature is that a vibrating phone on a table that has a slight slope will slowly - or, if the slope is bad enough, rather quickly - slide down the slope, possibly falling off the table and breaking. If our smartphones ever decided to kill us, this would possibly be their only method of attack. Randall would later cover this topic in the what if? article Robot Apocalypse.
  8. The Three Little Pigs is a children's fairy tale about three pigs who build their houses out of, respectively, straw, sticks, and bricks. A wolf comes along and eats the pigs living in the straw and stick houses, but he can't knock down the brick house, because his only method for breaking them down is to blow on them until the material falls to pieces. (In some variants, the more foolish pigs seek refuge in the brick house for a happier total ending for all but the wolf.) The 119 Little Pigs seems to be a variant where the pigs build their houses out of the 118 chemical elements, plus one other material (perhaps the bricks). The 38th little pig builds his house out of strontium, which is, of course, the 38th element on the Periodic Table. One wonders what happened to the pigs who are stuck making their houses out of elements that are gaseous or liquid at room temperature, or those whose houses would react with the air and/or undergo nuclear decay. In his book What If?, in the first comic, it shows the 92nd little pig, who built his house out of depleted Uranium, The wolf responded, "Dude". However, given the water content in exhaled breath, it's easy to see how the wolf would huff, puff, and blow down the houses made of lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, caesium, and francium. Though making houses out of hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon, chlorine, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon would all be very difficult as they are gases at room temperature.[citation needed] Also, there would be issues such as death from the toxicity of the elements, e.g. fluorine would kill the pig and wolf. The piggies may have difficulty collecting enough metal, as they would have trouble collecting enough technetium (43), which only occurs in minute traces, and astatine, of which approximately 1 ounce exists on earth. It could be a coincidence, or possibly Randall's intent, that the wolf asks "What is this shit?" while referring to strontium while "stronzo" is an Italian (vulgar) word for "turd", pronounced almost the same (it's a common source of bad taste jokes) and stront is a Dutch word for shit.
  9. "Fastest gun in the West" is a boast commonly made in Western movies, where it is used to mean that a person is the fastest at drawing his gun in a duel (or, alternatively, can fire his gun the fastest). It doesn't actually describe the gun itself, and certainly doesn't describe how fast the gun can gallop across the land.
  10. "It's what separates the men from the boys" is a phrase used to describe "macho" activities that, apparently, only "real men" will participate/do well in; all the other men haven't grown up yet, and are thus "boys." This strip takes a more literal approach, making a joke about how centrifuges also separate the men from the boys because the men are heavier. Centrifuges are used to rapidly separate a material from the liquid it's suspended in; this is either a pun on the word "separate", or an attempt by Randall to make the occupation of lab technician seem macho. In the film Moonraker, James Bond was almost killed in a centrifuge used as a g-force training vehicle for pilots/astronauts - but he survived - and he for sure is a real man... See also 123: Centrifugal Force.
  11. Narnia is the mythical land in The Chronicles of Narnia. In the books, time passes differently in Narnia, such that one can spend many years in Narnia and come out to find that almost no time at all has passed on Earth; conversely, during a short trip back to Earth, hundreds of years could pass in Narnia. Lucy is taking advantage of this by putting a computer in Narnia to perform extremely fast computation. Folding@home and SETI@home are distributed computing projects that aim to solve extremely large computational problems by pooling together computer resources of thousands of home computers who volunteer for the project; Folding@home looks at how proteins are folded, which has applications in medical science, and SETI@home analyzes EM waves from space, looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life amongst the cosmic background noise. Running through all of that data in a few hours would be quite an accomplishment indeed, given that, as Peter points out, the idea has many problems Lucy has evidently overcome:
    • The book was written in 1957 and it occurs even earlier than that, long predating personal computers, so Lucy shouldn't even have one.
    • Even if it occurs in an alternate universe where the PC was invented before 1957, the storage that would be needed to store the entire Folding@home and SETI@home databases would be far beyond her means, since the characters in the book are evacuees who don't have any money.
    • Even if she somehow pulled that much storage space together, the time needed for one computer to run through those databases is on the order of millennia. A computer would not continuously run for that long without careful treatment, which Narnia is not equipped for.
    • Even if we handwave around that issue ("Aslan, use your power to keep all dust away from this computer for the next ten thousand years, please"), the wall socket powering the computer is on the Earth side. Mains power outlets in the UK provide alternating current with an amplitude of 230 volts and a frequency of 50 hertz. The 50 Hz part is what's important here: all devices designed to work with UK mains power expect a 50 Hz sine wave. The time difference between Earth and Narnia would substantially elongate the sine wave in a method similar to the Doppler effect, which would probably prevent the computer from functioning at all. The frequency issue can be avoided by converting the alternating current to direct current on earth and passing the direct current to Narnia. However, to have a usable amperage (coulombs per second) on Narnia, the amperage (coulombs per second) on earth would have to be absurdly high, requiring wires much larger than shown. Also, the electricity costs would be too high.
    • The time differential doesn't occur while people are entering/exiting Narnia (though they do occur while the wardrobe's open) or the Pevensie children would have had had some difficulty surviving the transition. Since the cables of the computer are crossing between the worlds, it seems unlikely that the time differential is even active yet.
  12. The Honeymooners is a classic American sitcom. The show stars Ralph and Alice Kramden, and Ralph frequently makes empty threats of the form "One of these days, Alice...," followed by a combination of onomatopoeia. For example: "One of these days, Alice... BANG! ZOOM! Straight to the moon!" (Alice inevitably replies "Ahhh, shut up."). Here, Randall takes the pattern to a ridiculous and not-at-all threatening place.


Because of a family illness, instead of regular comics, this week I'll be sharing some strips that I drew as part of a game I played with friends. Each comic had to be written and drawn in five minutes.
Comic #1
Pearl Harbor. November 7th, 1941.
[There is a beach, with some ships floating in a crescent shaped harbor.]
[The same bay, again.]
[The boats continue to move about the harbor.]
[The boats do their thing. A title explains.]
(We're going to be here a while, since the attack wasn't until December.)
Comic #2
[Cueball is sitting on a bus, Megan in front of him. Another person is sitting in front of Megan and another person is sitting behind Cueball.]
I know it's natural and all, but I really wish women on the bus wouldn't try to breastfeed me.
Megan: C'mon, have some milk. Right here.
Cueball: I'm reading.
Comic #3
s/I think that/I saw a study once that said that/g
Instant persuasiveness multiplier!
Comic #4
[A newspaper front page. Billy Joel is between two policemen.]
Billy Joel Arrested for Arson
Comic #5
[One person has a cord leaving their mouth, the other is holding a handset on the end of it to their ear.]
Handset: Hee hee hee... *giggle*
I hear that if you drink coke and eat pop rocks, you vomit up a corded telephone handset on which you hear creepy little girls giggling.
Comic #6
[Three soldiers are holding a large integral sign, while a fourth points a gun at the Little Rock High School.]
1957: Eisenhower orders the military to integrate Little Rock High School.
Comic #7
[A smartphone is vibrating across a table, towards a person.]
The smartphones got too smart... and developed a taste... for BLOOD!
Fortunately, the only way they could move was by turning on their vibrate while on a sloped table.
Comic #8
[Cueball is reading to his child.]
Cueball: And the wolf went to see the 38th little pig, who had built his house out of strontium.
Cueball: And the wolf was all, "Ok, what is with this shit?"
The 119 Little Pigs
Comic #9
[Cueball is holding up a gun.]
Cueball: Fastest gun in the west!
[The gun is galloping across the desert.]
gallop gallop
[There is a podium, with a gun in each position.]
Comic #10
[A picture of a centrifuge dominates the panel.]
Centrifuges: They're what separate the men from the boys.
Comic #11
[A computer monitor is plugged in, and cables run into a wardrobe.]
Lucy: Time passes differently in Narnia, so by putting the CPU and storage for my machine there, I was able to run through the Folding@Home and Seti@Home databases in about an hour.
Peter: There are so many problems with that.
Comic #12
[Someone is talking to Alice.]
Person: One of these days, Alice... Wham, zoom, sploosh, fwoom, splash, gurlle, wheeeee, fwoosh, aren't waterslides fun?!


The tenth panel of this comic used to be available as a T-shirt in the xkcd store before it was shut down.

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Regarding Lucy, Peter, et al, the four children in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe... They're not foster children (except in the broadest possible parallel), but Evacuees. A huge number of children from many of the major cities of the UK were packed off in WW2 to be temporarily housed in more rural places, to escape The Blitz. (Many more, but a minor fraction, had been packed off to British Overseas Territories, and other friendly territories... Some part of this overseas cohort were children of richer parents who could afford to send their kids on 'holiday' well out of harm's way when things looked like they may get "a bit sticky", quite a lot of the rest were mostly orphans and the like, possibly including children currently in provisional foster-care, with few links to real family to keep them in the UK who were basically herded off to The Colonies, e.g. Australia, Canada...) From personal reading of the Narnia books I'd definitely say that the children (and their contemporaries) are upper-middle class at worst (not inner-city ne'er-do-wells... the classic quote apparently being of a city teacher saying as how his kids had left him for Evacuation saying "We is...", but returned after the general threat had lessened saying the rural variation of "Us be..."... The Pevensies, Eustace Scrub and Jill Pole were definitely of a higher-class than these stereotypes, although Prof. Kirke, in his youth and Polly Plummer sound at least financially lower in class... yet above the status King Frank the First had, whilst still a hansom-cab driver in our world), and there's most definitely living parents in the picture (see The Last Battle for how things stood). And it just occurs to me that a family of four kids, in fact, would have been dreadfully lucky to have been either fostered or Evacuated to to the same place... Good job Prof. Diggory was there with space for them, eh? ;) ...Anyhow, just saying. Don't even know if it's worth changing this one word in the explanation, but FYI. 00:01, 3 May 2013 (UTC)

A further note on the Narnia panel: At an earlier point in xkcd (#665), a woman (who appears to be Megan) discovers the wardrobe and begins conducting experiments. So Randall could be refering to her, and not the original children of the story, thus making some of these points arbitrary. On the other hand, in neither drawing are the subjects clearly identified, though the presence of computing would indicate a later time period than WWII. 09:58, 5 May 2013 (UTC)

And a final one on Narnia: SETI is looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. Doing your computation in a whole other world full of non-human sentients is...ironic, to say the least. 21:18, 7 May 2013 (UTC)

I think the centrifuge panel could also be a reference to sperm washing or sperm washing for gender selection, which are used in methods like IVF to select certain sperm for insemination. -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think it's just a silly reference to centrifuges, not a reference to a specific centrifuge based procedure. -Pennpenn 06:43, 10 July 2015 (UTC)
I thought the joke was that men are larger than boys, and would thus end up near the edge of the centrifuge while the boys remain on the inside.

I don't know what languages Randal speaks but would it be coincidence that the wolf asks "What is this shit?" while referring to strontium while stront is a Dutch word for shit? Tharkon (talk) 00:57, 3 July 2014 (UTC)

That's really interesting and needs to be said in the explanation, although it looks more like "SHTT". (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Added that. Herobrine (talk) 13:19, 26 April 2018 (UTC)

No.6 - I didn't see the integral sign at first, so I thought the text was referring to dis-integrate, as the US military is notorious for dropping bombs on schools! -- The Cat Lady (talk) 15:36, 20 August 2021 (UTC)

Another problem with the Narnia fast time thing: whoever the computer-owner is (I like the Megan theory above in the comments), she'd have to have something much faster than a direct backbone connection to download all those work units and upload all those results in an hour. 19:53, 6 September 2021 (UTC)

In 2022 entire catalog of Folding@HOME was actually solved in few hours although the company responsible for it claims they used artificial intelligence to achive this. 15:21, 31 January 2023 (UTC)