Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of the Web comic XKCD. It’s almost always smart, and often hilarious in an understated, intellectual way. It’s usually about science, which I particularly love, and which makes it a perennial favorite of geeks everywhere.
The geeks are not going to be happy with what comes next.
Last year, XKCD’s creator, Randall Munroe, came out with a new book—not a collection of his comics, but something he called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. The idea was to explain scientific and technical ideas using only drawings and a vocabulary of the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.
Intriguing concept! Scientists and science communicators are often reminded to avoid jargon at all costs, lest they drive away nontechnical readers. Albert Einstein himself once said "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother" (allegedly, anyway, and if he didn't say it, he should have). Munroe understands lots of things really well; otherwise, his comics wouldn't be so unfailingly clever.
It’s an intriguing concept, but right from the start I was a little dubious about the execution. It turns out that you can go overboard in avoiding. Instead of using the word “thousand,” for example (which itself isn’t in the top thousand), Monroe uses “ten hundred.” Um…OK. Sounds kind of goofy to me, and it really doesn’t seem any clearer; kind of the opposite, actually. It gets worse: Instead of calling a rocket a rocket, he calls it an “up-goer.” Instead of talking about cells, he talks about “the little bags of water you’re made of.” Speaking of Einstein, we can’t, because the word “Einstein” isn’t in the top thou…I mean, the top ten hundred. In Munroe-speak, it’s “the space doctor.” Things goes on like this ad nauseam, and I mean that literally.
Basically, Munroe explains complex scientific ideas in baby talk. It’s not easy, I’ll give him that. I probably couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write an entire novel without using the letter “e” either. But I really wouldn’t have any interest in trying, and I certainly wouldn’t want to read such a book.
I wouldn’t want to read more than a page of Thing Explainer either. I might be able to get through an entry on, say “food heating radio boxes”—baby talk for “microwave oven,” or an entry on “sky boats with turning wings” (that’s so much better than the overly technical word “helicopters,” don’t you think?). But I wouldn’t be able to get through both—and certainly not a page on “boxes that make clothes smell better” (I’ll leave it to you to guess what those are, if you can summon up the energy).
In short, he's got a cute gimmick, but it’s the same gimmick over and over and over. Cleverness in service of some useful goal is admirable, but this is cleverness for the sake of showing how clever you are. After a while (a very short while, for me), it gets really old.
At least, it does for me. I was convinced from my first taste of Thing Explainer that others would react the way I did. I’m not always so good at predictions, though. Back in 1985, I experienced karaoke for the first time during a trip to Japan, when a man in a kimono got up at a banquet and started belting out “I left my heart in San Francisco.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It stuck me it as truly ridiculous. “This would never happen in the U.S.,” I declared confidently.
You know how that turned out.
The same thing happened this time. I thought Thing Explainer was kind of silly, and predicted it would die without a trace. But no—nerds everywhere thought it was brilliant, for reasons I truly don’t understand. Bill Gates, the King of All Geeks, loved it. Phil Plait, Slate’s astronomy blogger, went gaga. “He is a friend of mine and very funny and brain-good, and his drawing stuff is a lot of fun to look at. Hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of people love what he does, and I do too,” Plait enthused.
Yes, he really said “brain-good.” To which I can only respond: “icky-poo.”
This all would have blown over for me last year, except that every so often, someone posts on Facebook or someplace about how fantastic Thing Explainer is, which starts yet another round of gushing admiration. This is no exaggeration.
It happened again earlier this week. I commented that I simply didn’t get it. I didn’t get an explanation, possibly because the others on the thread couldn't process the fact that someone could be so clueless. If anyone reading this can help, though, I’d really appreciate it.